Premiering on January 10, 1999, it's been called one of the greatest shows in television history. It even caused Yankee broadcasters John Sterling and Michael Kay, and WFAN hosts Mike Francesa and Chris "Mad Dog" Russo (which sure sounds like the name of a Mob guy, but he'd never have made it as one -- nor would I), to stop talking about sports on the radio, and talk about the show instead.
It made stars out of James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore, Robert Iler, Jamie-Lyn Sigler, Tony Sirico, Drea de Matteo, David Proval, Aida Turturro, Steve Schirripa; boosted the careers of Lorraine Bracco, Joe Pantoliano and Steve Buscemi; revived those of older actors Dominic Chianese and Nancy Marchand; showed that legendary Four Seasons singer Frankie Valli could act as well as sing; and showed that Steven Van Zandt could be more than Bruce Springsteen's guitarist and arranger.
And the opening sequence, showing Gandolfini as Mob boss Tony Soprano driving home from New York through North Jersey, is iconic. Though an observant New Jerseyan such as myself will note that the familiar images are a bit out of order. Sure, he could go through the Lincoln Tunnel, be able to see the Statue of Liberty (and, until 2001, the World Trade Center), and Newark's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, and go through the Ironbound section of Newark and see planes taking off from Newark Airport, before reaching home in North Caldwell, Essex County.
But he wouldn't get that close to Lady Liberty, or go over the Newark Bay Bridge, unless he left Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel. And he wouldn't pass the Goethals Bridge (which finally closed for a long-needed replacement today), Elizabeth or the Linden oil refinery, all south of the Airport.
The show was rough. It was violent. It was profane. It was ugly, no matter how many people on it were good-looking. Still, it was beloved, and it was epic.
When the aforementioned Michael Kay had Van Zandt on as a guest on his YES Network talk show CenterStage, Little Steven commented on how it was to be a part of two things -- the band and the show -- that helped to ingrain New Jersey into America's pop-culture consciousness.
But that last scene...
Just as Journey sings, "Don't stop... " it stops, the screen goes black (no fade), and there's nothing on the screen for 10 whole seconds, before the closing credits start.
It was filmed at Holsten's, in my original hometown of Bloomfield, Essex County, not far from the North Caldwell house that stood in for those of Tony and his brooding brood. It's not actually a diner: It's an ice cream parlor. I've been there 3 times.
That last scene has been parodied a few times (notice Tony Romo and Mark Cuban in this Dallas-based one for ESPN), partly because it's so recognizable, and partly because of the mystery surrounding it.
Was Tony Soprano killed as the screen blacked out? If so, who did it -- and why?
Why did series creator David Chase choose that as, as Bob Seger would say, The Famous Final Scene?
Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame David Chase for How He Ended The Sopranos
5. It Was His Show. He was the boss -- in full, more than Tony was ever truly boss of his family, or of his "family." Chase had every right to end his show any way he wanted.
4. It Could Have Been Worse. Much worse.
Some shows end perfectly, with a final episode, and even a final scene, that's not only in tone with the show as a whole, but fitting for the characters you've come to love.
The Fugitive was the 1st show ever to truly film a series finale. Airing on August 29, 1967, it drew the largest audience ever for a single network broadcast of a series episode to that point. That record would last until Dallas revealed who shot J.R. Ewing on November 21, 1980; and that was broken by the last episode of M*A*S*H on Februrary 28, 1983, a record that still stands. And in that finale, M*A*S*H got a proper sendoff.
Also coming up with proper endings were the original version of The Odd Couple, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Happy Days, Newhart, Cheers, Friends, ER, Six Feet Under, The Shield, The Wire, Smallville, Breaking Bad, and, for some people, Dallas (the original version) and Mad Men.
Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, despite each of them taking until a 3rd season to really get going, all had very satisfying finales.
No one would say The Sopranos ended as well as those shows did. But if that was a mistake, then it was still Chase's mistake to make. (See also, "Lucas, George.")
It was still a better last episode than we got from lots of iconic shows. Tony did settle an account, a la Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather. And the cut-short last scene certainly doesn't preclude a happy ending.
Compare that to the final episode of Seinfeld. Family Matters. Heroes. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Lost. Dexter. 30 Rock. How I Met Your Mother. Those shows' fans are still either furious or confused as hell.
Fans of Castle feared that, because Stana Katic had been fired, Kate Beckett would be killed in the Season 8 finale, and they practically demanded that the show be canceled. When it was announced that the season finale would be the series finale, the fear was that both Beckett and her husband, Rick Castle, would be killed at the end. And, for a moment, it looked like they were. But they weren't. Never had a show's fans been relieved by a show's cancellation, but many were still furious at the way they got played. (Clearly, the news that Katic was fired -- as was Tamala Jones, as Dr. Lanie Parish -- was a very cynical way of drumming up interest in the finale.)
The finale of Star Trek: Enterprise is still debated by Trekkies, due to the killing off of Connor Trinneer's Trip Tucker. But at least they got a finale. The final episode of the original series (admittedly, made in 1969, before TV shows tended to have final episodes that wrapped everything up, The Fugitive not really having set a trend) was just an ordinary episode, and a sloppy one at that. (The next-to-last one aired, "All Our Yesterdays," with a reverting-to-pre-logic Spock romancing Mariette Hartley, had the latest "stardate," but "Turnabout Intruder," with one of Captain Kirk's ex-girlfriends forcing him to switch bodies with her, was the last one aired.)
People still argue over whether the finale of the U.S. version of Life On Mars was perfect or perfectly ruined. The British, who hated that we adapted their classic 1970s throwback show in the first place, had a very different finale, then rewrote the story by adding a sequel series set in the 1980s, Ashes to Ashes, with a more whacked-out ending than any U.S. show has ever had.
ALF (hardly a great show, but beloved by many) ended on a lousy cliffhanger, because they didn't know it would be canceled when they taped it, let alone when they wrote it.
So did Mork & Mindy. Maybe all sitcoms about aliens are so doomed? Out of This World didn't have a finale, it just got canceled. At least My Favorite Martian had the advantage of airing before a wrap-it-all-up finale became expected. Stargate: Atlantis wasn't a sitcom, but it, too, ended on a cliffhanger, thus ending the entire Stargate franchise on one.
But if we presume that Tony was indeed killed, then...
3. Tony Deserved It. He was not a hero. He was not even an antihero. He was murdering scum who treated everybody (except his kids) badly. Not just his enemies, but his friends, his wife, his sisters, his mother (admittedly, no saint herself), his therapist.
If Tony was hit, whacked, dispatched, taken out, taken down, rubbed out, whatever expression you want to use, his wife and kids didn't deserve to see him killed right in front of them. But, in the words of the immortal Velma Kelly, "He had it comin'. He had it comin'. He only had himself to blame."
2. Death Is the Show's Main Character. Not Tony. Just like the main character of Star Trek isn't Captain Kirk, it's the ship. The main character of M*A*S*H isn't Hawkeye, it's the war. The main character of Cheers isn't Sam, it's the bar. The main character of Happy Days isn't Richie or The Fonz, it's 1970s grownups' only-partly-accurate nostalgic view of the 1950s.
The Sopranos is about organized crime, and about how changing times affect the people who choose, as they call it, "the life," even those who think they're in control, or think they should be in control. Like Tony.
There are a few examples -- Uncle Junior on the show, Joe Bonnano in real life -- of mobsters who are both out of prison and elderly. But most of them die either in prison or well before they get old (or both). Indeed, the fact that Tony's father, John "Johnny Boy" Soprano, died of emphysema, probably (the continuity gets contradicted at times) before he was the last age at which we saw Tony (48), is an outlier.
The thing that most influenced the show from Day One was death. The next-most? Uncertainty. Put those 2 factors together, and the show could have ended no other way than the way it did: Not with Tony being killed right after the screen went black, but with its fans wondering if that was what had happened.
And let's not forget: On June 19, 2013, only a little over 6 years after the show ended, James Gandolfini died. A heart attack, while in Rome with his family, to accept an acting award. We're led to believe that Tony was born in 1959, making him 48 years old when we last saw him. Gandolfini was born in 1961, so death came to him shortly before he would have turned 52.
Indeed, if the show had ended with Tony definitively alive, it would have been out of character for the show.
Gandolfini's death certainly eliminates the possibility of a reunion show, as such a show would have to acknowledge the death of both Gandolfini and Tony. Although The Sopranos: The Next Generation, with A.J. struggling with his own intellectual inadequacy to run "the family," and Meadow, a law student the last time we saw her, as his consigliera, might work.
And the biggest reason the ending that Chase chose was the right one for the series?
1. People Are Talking. Still. Think about it. Suppose Chase had decided to end all ambiguity, and filmed a death scene for Tony.
Or, suppose he had read the Song of Ice and Fire books, written by fellow North Jerseyan George R.R. Martin, who knows a thing or two about killing off beloved characters. (The joke is that he can't go on Twitter because he's already killed 140 characters.) The TV series based on it, Game of Thrones, was still 4 years away from premiering (also on HBO), but A Storm of Swords (the 3rd book in the series) had appeared 7 years earlier.
Suppose Chase had "gone Red Wedding" and let one of Tony's enemies, or representatives of more than one of them, wipe Tony, Carmela, A.J. and Meadow out in a single stroke. (Or maybe have Meadow escape, to seek revenge in a new show later on, a la Arya Stark.)
Sure, it would have shocked people, and we'd still be talking about it. After all, half a century later, we still talk about how all the Cartwright wives died (only one of them violently) on Bonanza. And it's been 42 years since M*A*S*H killed off Henry Blake, but we still talk about it.
We wouldn't talk about Henry's death nearly as much if the last episode of I Love Lucy had Lucy cradling Ethel in her arms after Fred beat her to death, then asking Desi to call some of his Cuban friends to exact revenge. But that didn't happen. We don't talk about the I Love Lucy finale, because that episode was an ordinary episode. (Plus, even Lucille Ball couldn't have gotten that episode past the censors in 1957.)
But what would have generated more buzz: The most shocking ending The Sopranos could have given us, or seeing no ending at all? Clearly, having no ending at all has more people talking about the last episode of this show than of any other -- even the finale of Seinfeld, which was fucked up six ways to Sunday.
Go ahead: Name one other show whose final episode, whose final scene, generates more discussion and speculation than that of The Sopranos. There isn't one.
James Gandolfini and David Chase
For David Chase, mission accomplished.