The Sopranos: The Final Act
xcitement was almost at fever level for last Sunday’s season premiere of The Sopranos. Coming around a year and a half after the end of Season Five, and after a wallop of a season finish—Tony got back together with Carmela, had Adriana whacked, killed his own cousin, and watched the feds swarm on Johnny Sack, all within the last two episodes—enthusiasm for the season premiere was compounded even further by the news that this will probably be the family’s last full season. So longtime fans and recent DVD converts like myself all watched Sunday’s episode hoping to see the start of the most eventful and important Sopranos season yet. For the first 50 minutes, they might’ve been underwhelmed. But the episode’s finale saved a hell of a twist for the end, one which holds much promise for a much more involving season to come.
The season begins with a now near-trademark opening montage of the various characters’ current exploits, a sort of “where are they now?” to help audiences play catch-up. Such sequences are usually the season opener’s emotional high point, but rather than being set to a highly sentimental soundtrack like season two’s “It Was a Very Good Year” montage, the dramatic content of this reunion is undercut by the bizarre soundtrack of a Material-produced William Burroughs spoken word monologue. And while the re-acquaintance with all our old Sopranos buddies is always nice, considering that 18 months has now passed (both in real time and Sopranos time), not much new is established—Janice now has a baby, A.J. now attends college and looks a lot like Lars Ulrich, and Meadow now looks pretty good doing a striptease for her fiancée, but that’s about it.
Past the opening montage, the episode continues to be somewhat disappointing. Much of the hour focuses on the two current snitches in Tony’s family—Raymond Curto and Eugene Pontecorvo. Curto has been flipped for some time now, Pontecorvo appears to be a recent convert, but neither makes it out of the episode alive—Curto suffers a mid-finking heart attack, and distressed over his inability to escape the family, Pontecorvo takes his own life. For a season opener, it’s somewhat confusing to see these peripheral (and now irrelevant) characters command so much of the episode’s attention. Frankly, I barely even remembered either of these characters, much less the intricacies of their back stories, and I had just finished re-watching Season Five earlier that morning. It’s unlikely that many fans had too much invested in Curto or Pontecorvo’s fates.
The time spent on these characters comes at the expense of the show’s more interesting and sympathetic characters. Tony and Carmela have little conflict besides a small dispute over dinner one night, Dr. Melfi makes a token appearance but no longer says much of consequence, and Christopher, Sylvio, and Paulie are given only a handful of lines between them. Even Hesh, the show’s secret weapon, is given little to do once he shows up. Considering the amount of time fans have spent apart from the show’s most loveable characters, you’d think a little more insight would be given into their recent developments.
However, certain seeds are cleverly planted that could easily blossom as the season progresses. Carmela appears to still have a lingering uneasy feeling about Adriana’s mysterious disappearance—even having a vaguely creepy discussion with her in a fake-out dream sequence (one which subtly puts down circulating rumors about Adriana somehow still being alive). Johnny Sack—the show’s most charismatic antagonist—is shown seething away in prison, ready to bubble over at any second, certainly about to become a source of extreme agitation as the season wears on. Even within Tony’s camp, new top earner Vito has started some loose talk of insurrection, signs perhaps of continued dissatisfaction with the way Tony handled the situation with his cousin at the end of the last season. None of these provide much drama within the episode, but they thankfully bode well for the rest of the season.
Significantly more dramatic, though, is the episode’s last scene, in which a confused and now almost totally demented Junior Soprano shoots Tony in the gut. It seems almost impossible to think of now, but we’ve gone five seasons without Tony getting mortally wounded—even Marlon Brando got shot a half-dozen times within the first half of The Godfather—and when it finally happens, under such unexpected and tragic circumstances, it’s positively shocking. Daring to cut off the episode before Tony is saved, The Sopranos asks viewers to ponder the almost unthinkable notion of the show without its cuddly but terrifying patriarch. It’s unlikely that it’s a reality we’ll have to face (at the very least, Tony managed to dial 911 before passing out, so it’s not impossible that he survived), but it’s a question that only a show as gutsy as The Sopranos would force its audience to consider, and one that reminds of what a great show this really is.
It’s unfortunate that the final scene is one of the only moments in the episode to really remind fans of this. Considering last season’s incredible opener—which managed to both pick up where the last season left off without missing a beat and introduce a whole spate of great new characters, the episode is ultimately surprisingly uneventful. But at least with an ending like this—one that proves once and for all that on this show, nothing is out of the realm of possibility—the doors are blown open for the rest of the season to be much more exciting. It might be the show’s last full season, but the fat lady is still a long way from singing on The Sopranos
It’s hard to tell if it’s post-Arrested Development withdrawal talking, but the first few episodes of Free Ride have proven that comedy on FOX is hardly dead (the ailing, but sometimes genius The Simpsons notwithstanding). Free Ride is like a suburban Kicking and Screaming, in which Josh Hamilton’s character is played by the recently-moved-back-to-Missouri Nate who is pining for the engaged bank teller Amber. Between working at an Outback knock-off and going on a double date with his Aunt Louise (“just Louise, Aunt’s a nickname”), the true comedy of Free Ride is in its pitch-perfect dialogue, which comes out of the fact that the series is partially improvised. Unlike the similar in concept Sons and Daughters, though (a show which also recently premiered), Free Ride exploits a fresher idea than the (wacky) extended family for television: those awkward post-college years in which one finds out that much of what was learned in college is irrelevant to what you need to know in the real world.
If ratings are any indication, Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield) and David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) are ecstatic with their new CBS show The Unit. Too bad it’s an artistic failure of two of the most invigorating voices of American television and theater of the last twenty years. Perhaps it’s being too hard on a pilot (which is forced to take time to introduce and make memorable seven different characters in the span of forty-five minutes), but you’d expect Mamet’s dialogue and Ryan’s tension-building to make up for any nods to the problems of quick and dirty character development. Instead, all of that’s saved for the final three minutes, when the men come home from their Special Forces mission. It’s in these moments of strain and release when the wives and husbands interact that The Unit shows signs of life. One hopes that their lives separate from one another can eventually attain these dramatic heights.