It’s difficult for a TV show to get on the air, let only stay there for any length of time. But it’s even more difficult, once it’s established itself, for a program to keep the quality high and consistent. TV shows have three major things to contend with:
1) The cowardliness of network TV programmers, who’ve been given a wakeup call in the last few years by HBO’s success with edgier fare.
2) The many hours that need to be filled. By the end of its fifth season, a program may have accumulated more than 100 episodes — for a one hour show, minus commercials, that’s about 75 hours worth of material.
3) The tightrope that all ongoing shows must walk: offering enough changes to keep the audience interested without making changes so drastic that regular viewers panic and flee.
It’s no wonder that no matter how good or successful a show is, it’ll inevitably go downhill if kept on the air too long. Think about how many young, virile shows became impotent and arthritic, yet still insisted on wearing ascots and trying out corny pickup lines on young women.
This entire phenomenon has been given a name: when a show “jumps the shark”, it means it’s begun its inevitable slide into painful mediocrity (or downright crap). But jumping the shark usually denotes a specific moment when everything takes a turn for the worse. Some shows, however, turn bad more slowly, without a defining moment to signify the decline.
One the most extreme cases of a slow decline was All in the Family. After seven years on the air, two of its main characters, Mike and Gloria, left. After three more years, Edith was killed off. Archie was the only one of the original four characters still hanging on for the final three years. They even changed the name of the show to Archie Bunker’s Place to reflect this sad state of affairs. For a perfect analogy, imagine Seinfeld carrying on for an extra three years without George, Kramer, and Elaine.
At the other extreme, where a great show knew exactly when to call it quits, was Babylon 5. B5 was originally conceived as a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end; it was meant to come to a definite conclusion at the end of its fifth season. And sure enough, after five years the show ended, on as high a note as TV has ever managed.
The Sopranos is an interesting case because it just ended its fifth season, yet the quality is still very much there. It remains one of TV’s best written shows. But for me, major changes and definite character developments are necessary if a program is going to keep my interest, especially after 65 hours. So, while still engaging, The Sopranos has nevertheless gotten stuck in the mud, its wheels aggressively but futilely spinning:
– One of the biggest developments, that didn’t involve somebody getting bumped off, was Tony and Carmela’s separation. Unfortunately by the end of the season, in typical TV fashion, that change was reversed. We were right back to where we started.
– Three non-regular but major characters (Richie Aprile, Ralph Cifaretto, Tony Blundetto) all performed the same function: having conveniently never been mentioned before, they were introduced, they pissed off a lot of people, and then they were killed by the end of their respective seasons.
– Four characters have been revealed as informers: Sal Bonpensiero, Jimmy Altieri, Adriana La Cerva, and Ray Curto. This overused plot device became particularly pronounced when Andrea was killed, and then in the very next episode, Ray was already talking to the FBI. At this rate, they’re going to run out of characters to act as informants and have to resort to having Tony eavesdrop on himself.
But the biggest problem has been Tony himself. He has changed little in five years. Not that David Chase, the show’s creator, should have Tony going through epiphanies every year, but what exactly is it that they think makes this guy still interesting? Personally, I’m getting tired of the bastard. Tony did come to a realization about the guilt he felt over why his cousin Blundetto went to prison, but we didn’t even realize this was an issue until half way through the fifth season.
There has been little change with any of the other regular cast members as well: Junior is still sitting around his house being ineffectual; Janice is still a directionless and unsuccessful manipulator; Dr Melfi is still dispensing non-advice (her greatly reduced role this season may indicate the writers have reached a dead-end with her); and Christopher still feels underappreciated. Chris also, after cleaning up his drug problem, fell back into it…and then reassured Tony he’d cleaned up again.
Most of the major plot points on The Sopranos revolve around people dying (that’s why it was a refreshing change when both Furio and Feech exited the show still breathing). But it’d be a shame if the show became one where all our expectations revolved around who’s going to get it next and why. I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only one waiting for a gang war between Tony and Johnny Sacks. Though I’m not sure if that was because it’s what I’ve come to expect in the way of excitement from The Sopranos, or because I really wanted something major to happen just to shake things up. Either way, Chase and his team denied us a war. In the pat final episode, Johnny got arrested by the FBI, immediately after settling things with Tony. It was the king of coincidental timing that the show usually avoided.
With Goodfellas and the first two Godfathers towering over the gangster genre, The Sopranos has always had its work cut of for it. But by using the long format of a TV series to its advantage, it has more than risen to the occasion. Yet the long format may also turn out to be its undoing. Chase must have been aware of this danger in the beginning; originally, it wasn’t his intention to have The Sopranos last this long.