Critic's notebook: Good times end for 'Sopranos'


It looked like curtains for Tony Soprano. They descended, too, but never quite reached the moment when the show must cut to black.

In Sunday night's finale, did exec producer David Chase ingeniously spare us the ultimate trauma of seeing his most famous TV character meet a violent death similar to those he had prescribed for dozens of others? Most certainly.

The end was near. It was signaled in the penultimate episode when Dr. Melfi, Tony's psychiatrist, told him she could no longer help him. At that point, Tony had gotten to a place where, inevitably, no one could help. In the final scene, his doom was cryptically written into the titles of the songs that caught his eye in the restaurant jukebox. "I've Gotta Be Me," said one.

The proverbial noose was getting tighter. Tony was only moments away from being whacked by a rival crime family. Perhaps it would also be the end of his wife, Carmella, and his son, A.J. Maybe also his daughter, Meadow. It almost didn't matter that Tony was on the verge of being indicted and almost certainly convicted.

Although Tony and "The Sopranos" had both run their courses for more than eight years, Chase didn't want us to remember them by their demise. A.J., seated with his parents at a restaurant table in the show's final minutes, told his father fatefully, "Remember the good times." The line also served as Chase's message to viewers who had followed this landmark TV show through 86 of some of the most scintillating episodes TV has known.

The integrity of "The Sopranos," from its first episode in 1999, made it impossible for Tony to simply flee the country or go into witness protection. For guys like Tony, there's only one way out. Still, by stopping short of what appeared to be an imminent bloodbath, Chase neither dodges reality nor dashes our hope that somehow, some way, Tony survives, that he merely uses up one his nine lives, much like the cat he befriends in the finale.

The cat, by the way, helped bring the show full cycle. Early in the series, Tony's home was menaced by a stray bear, the result of suburban encroachment on natural habitat. If Tony was the bear in those early years, fending off all rivals to control the operations that had been run by his family, he was more like a cat toward the end. His brute strength was of limited use. He could survive only by being nimble. But, eventually, even Tony must run out of lives.

Chase and James Gandolfini, who poured as much of his soul into Tony as an actor could put into any role, understood that "The Sopranos" needed to conclude, particularly if it didn't want to tarnish its brilliant legacy by overstaying its welcome. Even viewers were ready to move on. Ratings had just begun to ebb. Tony himself had become less lovable. The nearly universal chorus of praise was not quite as loud as it had been. Critics looked increasingly for signs of age and thought they found them, particularly when Tony spent the opening episodes of last season in a controversial coma.

But, as A.J. implored, let's remember the good times. Remember how the show single-handedly revived interest in crime drama. Remember how it took two diametrically opposite concepts, middle class suburbia and brutally violent criminal enterprise, and combined them to create the most unlikely antihero -- a suburban dad with a tight grip on his crime family and a nagging depression that required years of therapy. Remember how the show, for years, influenced the pop culture climate and infused it with talk of whacking and ba-da-bing and fuhgeddaboutit.

The seeds of Tony's destruction were planted in the very first episode. There's no point in bemoaning his likely end. Instead, remember what can be achieved by an inventive creator, the freedom to explore drama in new ways, a remarkable cast and, of course, the good times.