You're watching a chapter from "Cut to Black," a roundtable discussion about the ending of The Sopranos and the show's effect on the development of TV drama. Participants include RogerEbert.com editor and New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan, A.V. Club TV critic Ryan McGee, and previously.tv contributor Sarah D. Bunting. The series was shot and edited by Dave Bunting, Jr.
Chapter 3 talks about how viewers bond and identify with TV shows, what they expect from them, and what happens when the shows don't deliver.
MZS: A few days ago, I had a conversation about the end of The Sopranos while getting my hair cut. And this Russian barber who always cuts my hair--his name is Mike--we started talking about television, and we got on the subject of The Sopranos. And, of course, we got up to the subject of the ending, and he said he didn't like the ending. He said, "It's not like a movie, where it's two hours of your life. I don't mind it so much if a movie ends that way. But a television show, when I've been watching it for six years, I want the dot. I want the dot.' I don't know what he meant, and his friend corrected him: "You mean the period." And he said, "Yeah, the period, not the question mark."
McGee: Or the ellipsis.
MZS: [To McGee] There was something about what you said earlier -- and I mentioned the ellipsis, too -- but something you were saying earlier: what we want, what we want as a viewer. To what degree should what the viewers want be factored in? Is there a social contract between the people that make television, and the people who watch it? Are we owed anything?
Chase's position has always been very absolute on this, which is: 'No, I don't owe you anything. I'm gonna make my show, and you can watch it, or not watch it. I don't really care.' But we do live in the real world, and when you invest two, three, four, five, ten years in a TV show, maybe it's not that unreasonable to expect some kind of closure. You don't have to tie everything up in a neat little bow...
Ryan: Right, right.
MZS: And I, personally, am an absolutist about this. I think show should end however they want it to end. If I like it, fine, if I don't like it, fine. I'd much rather that they give me the ending that they want to give me rather than worry about my feelings. I kind of respect a show a little less if it seems to care what I think.
Ryan: That's definitely an endemic thing. Whatever boundaries there used to be between creator and audience has been not just collapsed, but now they're actually encouraged to get involved, and be into what the fans are thinking, and saying, and hating, and so forth.
I absolutely believe that David Chase is on one end of the spectrum in terms of, 'What do I owe the people? Am I trying to make a statement that I think is important about this piece that I've made? Or am I trying to please anybody?' And he's never wanted to please anyone! And that's why it's great. This is why The Wire is great, to some degree. Because David Simon said, 'All that TV hand-holding? Yeah, we're not doing that.'
So, what can be frustrating about a particular thing can also be what makes it great. So I'm willing to accept the ending of The Sopranos, and I understand that intellectually, this is what David Chase wanted to do. But reading what he said in Alan's book, and reading what he said in other comments in interviews recently...
MZS: That interview that he did recently, I forget what outlet it was in. But it seemed like he came perilously close to explaining what he intended.
Ryan: One thing I was wondering about, and wanted to get all your perspectives on: what do we think about the artist's statement, once he comes out five years later and says, 'Well, my intention for the ending was to make a deeply humanistic statement...'
MZS: [Groans] I hate it. I hate it when they do that.
Ryan: To me, it's really interesting. Because I actually had more compassion for the guy and what he was trying to say. Truthfully, he sort of outlined this far more humane thought process behind the ending that I didn't get from the ending.
MZS: Can you summarize it for those that didn't read that article?
Ryan: He made some comment that people unfairly were saying about The Sopranos was that he was making a statement about how people don't learn, people don't change. What he was really saying in his comments, to boil it down, is that it's very, very difficult to change, and he's not making an indictment of people trying to change. And the ending was not meant to reinforce this idea that he's essentially pessimistic about human nature. I do think that's a fair characterization...
Bunting: I think that may have been--not that he didn't say it elsewhere--but I'm pretty sure that was in Alan Sepinwall's book [The Revolution was Televised]. This idea, that, 'I'm not trying to impose a pessimistic view of people, that they don't change, on the show. I'm trying to reflect what I see as the reality of these people.' Which a lot of other things, not just the ending, but a lot of other things in the last two episodes pointed to as well. Like A.J.'s junior pinko, 'I'm going to join the army, then be a helicopter pilot for Donald Trump, and be a member of the CIA.' And Carmela's like, [clucks tongue] 'Here, take this script. Go work for this film company, it'll give you a car. Just stop--with the crazy talk.'
And definitely it's his view that AJ can't change because he's too fucking stupid. [laughs]
MZS: He is. He is, alas.
Bunting: And I'd have to agree. You have to wonder how much of that was acting. Sorry, Robert Iler! [all laugh] But yeah, I think that's the substance of it. I think a lot of people had capsuled his take on the show, and the characters, so that it read like, 'People don't change, and this is my misanthropy.'
But what he's said in the last couple of years has been, 'This is the mafia. I don't think it's really realistic for me to put a bow on this, this particular set of people.' It's a little tweak, but it's meaningful.
McGee: When it originally aired, I didn't even have a TV, never mind cable. I was in that post-college phase where money didn't exist. So I caught a lot of the last two seasons very hit-or-miss, and I caught the ending as it happened. But going through a full rewatch over the last six weeks, the theme that I got, if I was to go away with anything, is nostalgia for that which never existed.
McGee: Tony's thoughts about the mafia that used to be, or Carmela's insistence, "Oh, A.J. used to be such a happy boy” -- was that actually true? Or Bobby's love of trains...
MZS: Well, even that imaginary voiceover: "I feel like I came in on the end there." “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?” Well, Gary Cooper wasn't Gary Cooper, that's what happened to Gary Cooper.
Bunting: That's not even silent, either. I mean, have you seen High Noon?
Ryan: Even at Holstein's, when they say, "Remember the good times?" And I say, [nods skeptically] 'Okay, there were good times, I guess. Some?'
McGee: We talked about this a lot on our podcast, Mo, where there's an association people get with certain shows where they pour themselves into the show, making the show a representation and a reflection of themselves.
McGee: To be a fan of a certain show means that you're telling us something about yourself. And when that show lets you down, that makes you not only question your involvement with the show, but your actual self.
MZS: Yes! [laughs] 'Why, why did I get involved with this show?!'
McGee: And the idea that the last shot could...and it's not just this show, it's other shows, like Lost, Battlestar [Galactica], as well: 'I suddenly don't like anything I saw over the last six years.'
Bunting: Well, I think Chase was baffled by, or impatient with--or probably both--consistently, especially with this ongoing thing about the Russian, that people were invested in it in this way, and didn't just trust him. Well, it's not really like trusting your story-telling. People are addicted to the show, and it's 48-point news whenever it's coming back, or someone gets killed. But I think he was also conflicted about the popularity of the show for that reason. Because he could see that people were as invested in it as, I don't know, a line in their online profile. 'This is how I identify myself, as a Sopranos fan.' [points to MZS] And you should talk about the letters you used to get at The Star-Ledger.
MZS: Oh, dear God.
Bunting: There was really this huge cohort of, 'Ain't enough people gettin' killed.'
MZS: It was amazing.
Bunting: We, at Television Without Pity, were not seeing that.
MZS: It started...well, it was partly because I covered the first three seasons of The Sopranos at the Star-Ledger. And that's a little like being the film production reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution when they're shooting Gone with the Wind.
Bunting: Tony's sitting there reading your paper.
MZS: Yeah, Tony's sitting there reading the Star-Ledger. So it was nuts. It was a Through the Looking Glass sort of situation.
But people were invested in the show for so many reasons. And there was a hometown hero thing, but there was also the thrill of seeing actual New Jersey locations in the episodes.
Bunting: Yes, there was! [pumps fist in air] Go, team!
MZS: See, there you go. [Bunting laughs] And there was a contingent of people that were in it for the wackiness of it: the strip club visits, the drugs, the clubs, and other things. And The Godfather stuff: who's gonna betray who, who's gonna get whacked, who's gonna get tortured, is this person gonna talk to the FEDs?
That was what they were watching the show for, and they really were not into the scenes where Tony and Carmela discussed the problems they were having raising their children. They really weren't into the therapy scenes, particularly. And they really got angry at the end of season two, the whole Big Pussy on the boat stuff, and Tony getting food poisoning, and...
Bunting: Talking fish.
MZS: They were bringing the mail to me...it was like Miracle on 34th Street. They were bringing the mail in in sacks, and it was like, 'I hate this show!'
But yeah, I wonder if the people who were angry at the show have revised their opinion at all in retrospect.