'Sopranos': its hits, its misses

Times Staff Writers

Mary McNamara: Exactly how much slack are we supposed to cut "The Sopranos"? Yes, yes, last week's episode was pretty darn good, what with A.J. discovering his inner gangster and Christopher totally surrendering to his, but one out of five is not great odds, even for a compulsive gambler.

Speaking of which, I know Tony's always been a gambler, but two weeks ago, he's suddenly a night-sweating, chest-heaving future member of G.A. They should have saved time and just had Paulie stand up and intone: "Tony Soprano, your luck has finally run out."

This entire season has seemed pure prologue, spotlighting one force, then another, which may or may not be the agent of Tony's doom. The rumor is that there will be no final cataclysmic event, but still I keep waiting to hear the Shelby Foote voice-over about dark storm clouds gathering over the Hudson. (My money's on Vito Jr. -- the fatal flaw in any capo is not protecting his family. And David Chase may break all the rules about TV he wants, but when a psycho teen shows up in Act 1, he better go off by Act 3.)

Paul Brownfield: When you have a show that's been drooled over the way "The Sopranos" has been, it's tempting to take it down a notch or two. As one of the droolers (I have a spittoon handy when I watch the show), I'm not disappointed at all with this season. Mostly because "The Sopranos," for me, is so rich and textured, scene-by-scene, and James Gandolfini is so monstrously good in the Tony role, that I forgive (or, more accurately, forget about) whatever plot business is denied us. I think a great television show can still be great even if it's not great episode to episode, season to season.

And while we're on the subject, can we even call this a "season"? It's confusing -- HBO wants us to believe it's a season, but on its own website they list the episodes under Season 6. I see these more as nine bonus episodes after stiff negotiations among lawyers over back-end profits, and anxious begging from HBO.

Really, though, all that matters to me is, where does the show leave Tony, finally? I've never cared more about how a TV series decides to say goodbye to its main character.

McNamara: I realize "The Sopranos" is an Important Show -- changed the face of television, etc., put HBO on the map, etc., etc. -- but could they stop with the preening subtleties? That Tony cheats at Monopoly is supposed to reveal ... what? That he's an immature criminal? Just get on with it already. Last week's A.J. and Christopher plotlines are a start (though there was something a bit self-satisfied about Christopher shooting the screenwriter, like, "Oh, the poor writers, they always take it in the gut").

Tony is simply missing too many sessions. The conceit of a mobster with mother issues visiting a shrink is what drew viewers to the show in the first place. Let's hope Tony straightens up, because he is lost without Melfi and, frankly, so is "The Sopranos."

Brownfield: This season began with him lamenting, "I'm getting old, Carm," after he couldn't back up his taunts with his fists and was pummeled by his brother-in-law in the equivalent of a bar fight. That one of Tony's lieutenants would take him on is shocking in itself -- a crushing blow to the order of things in Tony's world. I'll grant you the show has seemed to meander a little (what happened in Miami between Paulie and Tony stayed in Miami because it wasn't all that climactic).

But I think -- not to aggrandize Chase and his writers more than they've been aggrandized -- the overarching theme of this season is mortality, and the slow march of time, and the ugly way these characters are going to go out, stewing in their own juices, so to speak. It's almost like Tony's hoping he goes out in a blaze of glory, as opposed to what we're seeing happen with Junior, or Johnny Sack in prison.

As for Christopher's shooting of the TV writer: This was but the final note in what has been a constant bashing of that character, and network TV in general. In fact, the headstone Vito Jr. knocks over reads: David M. Hackel. That episode was written by Matthew Weiner, who worked for Hackel on the sitcom "Becker." So that's either delicious revenge or an hommage.

McNamara: I cannot tell you how frightening it is that you A) noticed what was on the headstone and B) know what it refers to. This is what I'm talking about, though. I realize that you and many others would tune in to watch Carmela and Tony retire and get his and hers real estate licenses. But for the rest of us, who feel interest but not slavish devotion, things like plot do still matter. For a show to be a classic, as opposed to a cult classic, it should still be great long after all the insider hype has died down. I'm not sure this season would stand that test.

I'm all for a thoughtful contemplation of mortality that illuminates the pettiness of these alleged big men. Unfortunately, the trouble with devoting so much effort and talent to proving the banality of life -- as Tony said to Dr. Melfi, "Is this all there is?" -- is that many viewers may wind up wondering the same thing.

Brownfield: If "The Sopranos" began with a mob boss going to see a shrink because he has panic attacks, I'd like to point out that Melfi has cured him at least of that -- he hasn't had a panic attack in years.

"Goodfellas" ended with Ray Liotta in witness protection, Robert De Niro in prison and Joe Pesci dead. My guess is, Chase won't betray this tradition. The whacking of Christopher's fiancee, Adriana, was, to my mind, the seminal killing of all the killings over the years, partly because I loved that character. She just seemed very real. And as an over-involved fan, I want to see the scene where Carmela discovers that Tony had Adriana bumped off. Edie Falco is so terrific, and that moment would have such an emotional payoff, I'd love to watch her nail it.

More generally, I heard Chase say that all classic mob stories are about the rise and fall; from that you can extrapolate that "The Sopranos" will leave Tony fallen. The question on everyone's mind, I guess, is whether he lives or dies.

McNamara: Carmela on Adriana would be great. But they don't have a lot of time, do they? One could argue that nine weeks is not enough time for a show of this magnitude and cast list to wrap itself up in a meaningful way. What's going on with Meadow? Is Silvio ever going to get a line, much less a life? But if so, why waste five, OK, four episodes on weird exposition?

Obviously, not every story line can come to a meaningful conclusion and no one event can sort everything out. They can't just end the Korean War, say, or have Mary Richards leave Minneapolis. (Which is why I am pulling for the Vito Jr. blow-away.)

Brownfield: Right. If the overarching theme here is the slow death of the Cosa Nostra as the old-timers knew it (and hardly an episode passes where they don't riff on that), it'll probably end on some grace note that doesn't whitewash all the brutality. Chase is a music nut, so what about a montage? He's started various seasons with a montage set to eclectic music to catch us up.

McNamara: Please merciful heavens, anything but a montage.

Brownfield: I agree with you there. So that's something to build on. How's this: You're right, except that you're wrong. Is this season better than all other seasons? No. It's nine more hours of a great television show that fashions itself as so many individual movies. It's kind of like saying to the Beatles, "Why do you keep repeating the refrain in 'Let It Be'? "Let it be, let it be -- we get it, move on. Then what happens?"

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paul.brownfield@latimes.com

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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