Critic Analyzes Sopranos Finale

June 12, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the finale for the life and times of Tony Soprano and families. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tony Soprano was a mob boss who visited a therapist for bouts of depression…

JAMES GANDOLFINI, Actor, “Tony Soprano”: What do you mean, talk to somebody else?

JEFFREY BROWN: … a suburban dad with two teenage kids who whacked anyone in his way. For eight years, “The Sopranos” was an unprecedented television mix of violence and family values, all set in New Jersey.

JAMES GANDOLFINI: And on top of that, you’re going to work your little ass off.

JEFFREY BROWN: The HBO series was critically acclaimed, much honored, and attracted a cult-like following. This past Sunday, 12 million viewers tuned in to watch the series finale, and the program’s creator, David Chase, gave them one more thing to talk about: a very sudden, unresolved ending, as viewers were left to guess whether Tony lived or died, was headed to prison, or free to eat more onion rings with his wife and kids, when the TV screen suddenly went to black.

'The Sopranos' broke rules

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that ending left some fans smiling and others screaming at their screens. Here to tell us about it and the series is Alan Sepinwall, TV critic for the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, ground zero for "The Sopranos" drama.

Well, Alan, first, for the uninitiated, what made this series so different and, for many, so special?

ALAN SEPINWALL, Television Critic, The Newark Star-Ledger: Well, I mean, there have been shows on television in the past that have tried to have the level of ambition and creativity that "The Sopranos" have had, but few have been this accessible.

It was able to be high-brow and low-brow. You could watch for dream analysis and literacy references or you could watch to see someone get their head blown off, so it had a very wide appeal. And it was dense. And, you know, I can write books and books about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Somehow, that mix that I talked about in the introduction, somehow the writers and the producers managed to make people care about this very violent man. How did they do that?

ALAN SEPINWALL: Well, it helps to have a very talented actor playing him. And they often placed him in situations that were very familiar to us. Sure, he was a mob boss and he was killing people, but he also had to deal with two disrespectful teenage kids, and go on errands, and run around suburban life that we all knew.

JEFFREY BROWN: The show is often talked about in, you know, historic terms, as well as literary terms that you mentioned, just the role that it played for cable television and changing network television, as well. Tell us a little bit about that.

ALAN SEPINWALL: Well, pretty much every scripted drama on cable television and some on network television wouldn't exist right now without "The Sopranos." "The Sopranos" broke a lot of rules and showed that a lot of the rules shouldn't have existed in the first place, for instance, the notion that your hero had to be in some way likable or redemptive for people to be willing to watch for this long.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so what do we see as a result of that? What kind of changes did it bring?

ALAN SEPINWALL: Well, you wouldn't see a show like "House" on FOX without Tony Soprano first. You couldn't do a show about a doctor who's a drug addict and an emotional bully.

An ambiguous ending

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, that ending that we and many are talking about, a scene in a New Jersey ice cream parlor. A lot of shady characters come in as Tony is sitting there with his family.

ALAN SEPINWALL: Maybe shady.

JEFFREY BROWN: His daughter is outside trying to park. And we don't know what that means, and then, suddenly, black. Now, that stirred up a lot of people. Why do you think?

ALAN SEPINWALL: Because, a, a lot of people thought that their cable had gone out, but it was not an ending, or at least it was not an ending that people were expecting, even though for seven seasons the show had said time and again, "Don't expect the expected. Don't expect us to give you closure. We're not interested in that." And that's what they did again here: Tony Soprano doesn't know what's going to happen next in his life, and neither do we.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I understand you're still getting deluged with e-mails and calls and letters. What are people saying?

ALAN SEPINWALL: Well, it's been about 50-50, those who loved it and those who hated it. But what's really interesting is the number of theories I've been getting from people who have to convince themselves in some way that there was a definitive ending, and so they're inventing clues that weren't actually there.

A lot of people keep referring back to a conversation from an earlier episode between Tony and his brother-in-law about what happens when you die. And they say that the brother-in-law said, "Well, when you get murdered, everything goes to black." And they've said, "Well, everything went to black here; that's evidence that Tony was killed." The only problem is the brother-in-law never said that.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see, a lot of conspiracy theories in the afterlife, huh?


Creator David Chase's perspective

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you're the only reporter I think that has been able to talk to David Chase, the creator of all this. What does he say? Was he trying to stir things up with the ending?

ALAN SEPINWALL: David insisted that he was not in any way trying to mess with people, trying to play with their heads, trying to taunt them or anything. He feels as if the ending that he wanted to do was that and that, if you watch it carefully, it's there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he, I gather, went off to France to escape all this?

ALAN SEPINWALL: Yes, he goes to France at the end of every season, but this time he went into pretty much radio silence. And if he hadn't agreed a few months ago to do this interview with me, I don't even think I would have been able to talk to him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I have to ask you about New Jersey, because a lot of the towns there and various locations were almost like characters in this series. Did that create a kind of special relationship with the community where you are?

ALAN SEPINWALL: Well, certainly, I imagine that our state is crazier about this show than anywhere else, because it features all these places that we know or places exactly like the ones that we know. At the same time, there is a fairly vocal segment of the community who feel embarrassed by the show or offended by the show, feel that it demeans them, especially Italian-Americans, by again depicting them as criminals, and also loudmouthed, and tacky, and everything else.

The possibility of a film

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I also want to ask you specifically about your paper, because one of the iconic scenes for those who watch regularly is that Tony, in the morning after a night of mayhem or carousing or what have you, would shuffle down in his bathrobe, in his beautiful suburban home in the driveway, and pick up the Star-Ledger, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: So did you guys think of him as one of your readers?

ALAN SEPINWALL: We did, although he usually seemed to be reading the sports section and not the TV coverage, but I try not to take it too personally. But it was just -- that was, I've got to say, it was kind of cool.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one last thing. I guess there is some talk about whether there might be a future film about "The Sopranos." What do you know?

ALAN SEPINWALL: Chase insisted that he didn't write this ambiguous ending, if indeed it's supposed to be ambiguous, with a movie in mind. He left the door open. He said, if an idea came to him one day, he'd consider it, but to my ears he did not sound like a man interested in doing a "Sopranos" movie. He definitely wants to do movies, but I think he's ready to move onto other characters and other stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Alan Sepinwall of the Star-Ledger, thanks very much.

ALAN SEPINWALL: My pleasure.