The Sopranos

Twelve episodes into the sixth season, with the final eight episodes scheduled to air in 2007. (Seasons one through five on DVD.)

I met the Sopranos nearly six years ago on Thanksgiving Day. Neither my brother nor I could make it home to Florida, so he came to visit me for the holiday. We had gotten hold of the first season of The Sopranos on DVD, and we watched all 13 episodes back to back while I made pasta for dinner and chocolate-chip cookies for dessert.

The marathon took more than 13 hours (we paused in between episodes — and sometimes during them — to discuss), but our attention never wavered, and we never considered breaking off and watching the remaining episodes the next day. As the season progressed, the subplots wove together, and the tension ratcheted higher and higher. We couldn’t possibly stop when we wanted so desperately to see what unfolded next.

If we had spent that Thanksgiving watching the sixth season instead of the first, however, we might have set a few episodes aside for Friday or maybe even the weekend. It’s not that season six has been bad, but creator David Chase and his team of writers seem to have decided that plot momentum and climax are too plebian for The Sopranos.

From what I understand, Chase believes that some fans are too bloodthirsty, reveling in the beatings and the hits instead of appreciating the show’s thoughtful examination of family relationships, balance between work and private life, class division, gender construction, the push of modernity, and numerous other heavy issues. Perhaps he would interpret my frustration with season six as evidence of such base barbarism, but that would be unfair. I’m not asking for more violence in season six: What with a deranged Uncle Junior nearly killing Tony, Gene graphically committing suicide, Paulie viciously beating an innocent civilian, Artie foolishly brawling with Benny, and Phil overseeing the brutal gay bashing and murder of Vito — among the many incidents that earned The Sopranos its MA rating — I got my fill of blood.

It isn’t a lack of violence that makes The Sopranos feel a bit stagnant; it’s a lack of forward momentum and the dearth of new material. I’ve seen Christopher lapse into heroin use. I’ve seen Carmela flounder around her opulent but empty nest. I’ve seen Tony play out his mommy issues with a distant, sharp-tongued brunette.

Meanwhile the most intriguing new stories go nowhere or resolve themselves too quickly. Carmela’s tentative probing into Adriana’s disappearance is tantalizing — what would she do if forced to face the reality that Tony ordered the young woman’s death? — but The Sopranos picks up that thread only to drop it after an isolated scene or two. The prospect of A.J. drifting toward criminal life also had a lot of promise, but Tony’s low-achieving son discovers the joys of an honest day’s work thanks to the love of a good woman and a previously undramatized fondness for toddlers in a single episode.

Maybe those storylines and others will develop more fully in the final eight episodes, scheduled to air in 2007, but even if that’s the case — in fact, particularly if that’s the case — the past 12 episodes have abused viewers’ long-standing relationship with these characters. We’ve been served a great deal of filler because they know we’ll keep coming back for more. It’s hard not to feel insulted by that. If Chase didn’t have 20 hours worth of material, he shouldn’t have agreed to a final 20-hour season.

The writing is still strong, the production values are still amazing, and the acting is still exquisite, but The Sopranos just doesn’t capture my imagination the way it once did. I remember watching older episodes and feeling exhilarated and challenged, but recently The Sopranos has felt shopworn, even predictable. When Tony and company return in a few months, they had better spice up the menu. The old dishes are still delicious, but it’s time to add some fresh ingredients.

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