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June 11, 2007 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | June 11, 2007 |

(If you’re not all caught up with “The Sopranos,” including last night’s series finale, please just skip right down to the “John from Cincinnati” section post-haste.)

The first line uttered by the titular character in “John from Cincinnati” was “the end is near.” For our dear families of “The Sopranos,” of course, the end was last night. It was an open-ended end. It was an ambiguous end. And it was a perfect end.

Yes, for this show, it was the perfect ending. Like many other seasons, the penultimate episode really held the “action,” and this was more of a clean-up episode to show us the aftermath. We see how the Jersey family gets itself more-or-less back on track and out of the turf war by brokering a deal with New York and getting Phil permanently gone. We see how the Soprano family gets itself more-or-less back on track with new houses to build, legal careers (get out now, Meadow — it’s not too late!) and fianc├ęs to marry, and movies to produce and clubs to start. And then, of course, there’s Tony.

In the episodes leading up to this finale, David Chase and company have gone out of their way to de-humanize Tony, reminding us that the head goombah we have come to know and love is. Not. A. Good. Guy. The gambling, Christopher’s murder, the almost-whacking of Paulie — almost every episode this season has acted as another underline of the “anti” in “antihero.” And this finale was no different. Sure, there were some moments where Tony actually appeared to have advanced on a basic emotional level — he showed some actual sympathy and remorse towards Silvio, and there was even a smattering of empathy for Junior. Yet Tony is still, when it comes down to it, the same self-centered son of a bitch he’s always been, and the visit with A.J.’s shrink was meant to show us that Tony hasn’t really made any progress in his journey over the last six seasons, as he quickly steered the discussion of his son’s well being to his own mommy issues.

Now I have to assume that all the talking over the next day or two will be about the ending, or lack thereof. I went to one message board last night and did a quick scan and, as I suspected, it was already full of “worst episode ever,” “I want that hour of my life back,” “they copped out to leave the door open for a movie” and “all that tension and buildup for nothing” comments. Some of you reading this very column may be nodding your head in agreement. Well, at the risk of offending and alienating you, you’re all fucking idiots.

Truthfully, we got a touch more finality here than I was expecting. Phil? Dead. The NYC/Jersey turf war? Resolved (for the moment, although that moment may be fleeting, depending on how you interpret the show’s end). Meadow and A.J.? Apparently moving into rather comfortable places in their lives (although, again, that comfort may be quite shattered depending on that last moment). The Feds? Rolling with the subpoenas and indictments. In fact, the only real ambiguity in this episode was the very end. And that’s really what the insufferable monkeys people are pissed about.

That final scene is, quite simply, one of the best moments this show has ever had. And coming on the heels of last week’s amazingly executed hit on Bobby, “The Sopranos” truly ended on a high note from a direction, cinematography and editing perspective. But the true genius of this scene is that very same ambiguity many are now crying about. Is Tony looking up with every ring of the front bell because he’s anticipating his family members, or is he looking up because, even though the current “war” is over, he fully knows that his life is always one bullet from ending? Are we seeing a truly objective scene, where the guy at the bar really does have an unnatural interest in Tony, or are we simply seeing Tony’s perspective of everyone as a possible enemy (remember that our pal isn’t just cautious, but a raging narcissist)? Does that guy at the bar, who we last see going to the bathroom, really have nefarious plans for Tony, or is it just that maybe he recognized the well-televised head of the Jersey family (or “gang,” as the departed Phil derogatorily commented) sitting in his local diner? And then there’s the final blackout. Did we get cut out in the middle of just another New Jersey night, with Tony simply watching Meadow walk through the door, with the Soprano life, much like a movie, just going “on and on and on?” Or was that Tony’s last fleeting moment, perhaps with Mr. Bathroom Guy returning to put two into Tony’s head? (And yes, there was “peace” with NYC, but surely there were still those loyal to Phil who weren’t too pleased at his capping, not to mention the countless others who must hate Tony because of who he is and what he’s done to them.)

There is so much that can be read into and interpreted out of that final scene, all played to one of the greatest prom songs ever (screw the naysayers — Journey rules), that I dare say it’s richer and more layered than almost any scene that has ever been on TV. And as for “the insufferable monkeys” who call this a disappointment and the television version of blue balls? Well, actually, I take it back. I don’t find you insufferable or think that you’re “fucking idiots.” … I feel sorry for you. I am truly sorry that you missed, or were incapable of appreciating, this final chapter for what it truly was. Look, like many others, I did more than my fair share of pissing and moaning about this show’s decline from the genius of its inception. But even at its dullest and most uneventful, it was still better than 90% of everything else on TV. And there’s no arguing that the show was responsible for a major shift in television. It really put HBO on the TV map, which in turn opened the door for Showtime and FX and cable television programming in general. It also pushed network dramas into a darker, grittier “realism” (that it had more or less avoided in the name of “escapism”) and a more cinematic design and aesthetic. Quite frankly, this show probably had a bigger impact on the nature of television than any show before it, and while I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t personally dub it the best show ever, I might dub it the most important. And tonight’s final chapter was a worthy denouement (and the fact that it wasn’t really a denouement — which is technically where a series of events are firmly resolved — is exactly why it was the perfect ending for this show).

Does Tony live to go on mobbing another day? Or, as Bobby said, did he not even hear his last moment coming? Did Carm and A.J. and Meadow just watch their lives shatter before them as the family patriarch was brutally murdered in a diner? Or was this a rare and happy night in the Soprano’s life?

Many will have their own interpretations of this final moment. I have no such interpretation because, frankly, I don’t care. “The Sopranos” has never been about finality (except with regard to many character’s lives, that is). It’s been about the little moments and incidents that act to form the pastiche of life, be it family life or mob life. And … well, look — I just don’t know how many other ways to say it. I’m in awe of what David Chase did. This was as fitting and “in tone” an ending as the final montage that Alan Ball gave us in “Six Feet Under.” It left me desperately wanting more (something I wouldn’t have believed I’d be saying a mere two months ago) and, just like Steve Perry’s final lyric, I almost want to plead that they “don’t stop.” But that would ruin the beauty of this moment.

And then we turn the page to a new era. Within the television circles, much has been said of late about what this finale means for HBO. “Sex and the City” is gone. “Six Feet Under” is gone. The critically luhrved (myself decisively included) “Deadwood” is gone. And now the mob giant is gone. With the brilliant yet unappreciated-by-most-viewers “The Wire” now left standing as HBO’s current longest running show, and “Entourage” the closest thing to a “hyped” show the network’s got left, HBO officially enters its rebuilding phase. And that phase begins with David Milch’s “Deadwood” follow-up, “John from Cincinnati.” Truthfully, I think HBO made a big miscalculation here. I totally get why they would want to premiere this right after the “Sopranos” finale, hoping to get as many eyeballs as possible. But love or hate that finale, was anyone really ready to jump right into a new adventure? I know I wasn’t. While I watched the episode, and rather enjoyed it, I’m not sure I was really able to process it in any way. So my discussion of the show shall be brief.

“John” focuses on a family of surfers, the Yosts. They are, as one would expect from any HBO family, chock-full of problems. And there are a variety of other characters on the periphery, many of whom clearly shall not remain on the periphery. I can’t tell you a lot about who these characters are or what they do (although they include a fun group of actors, including Luis Guzman, Willie Garson, Ed O’Neill and Luke Perry) because, as I say, I really wasn’t processing much from this show. Garson’s character is a surfing lawyer, and Perry’s character is a promoter. Guzman owned a hotel that he just sold, I think. And I really have no idea what the hell O’Neill’s character does. … I’m gonna have to watch this episode again.

Anyway, into their life comes John Monad. He barely talks and, when he does, it’s often to recite Biblical-type dialogue, or to repeat what others have said. To some, he appears sweet and innocent. To others, he probably appears borderline retarded. But he can surf. And he’s got magic pants (seriously, his pants pockets are always empty, yet he can pull out whatever he needs at a moments notice, be it cash, an ID, a cell phone, etc.). And now that John’s rolled into town, strange things have started happening. Ed O’Neill’s parrot has resurrected, and grandpappy surfer Mitch Yost can levitate. But good things have happened too, as the Yost family already appears to be on better terms then they’ve been in quite some time. One episode in, I wouldn’t expect to really know what the deal is, but it certainly appears, at first blush, that John is some sort of Christ figure (an interpretation which is helped both by the definition of his last name — “monad” means one and, according to Wikipedia, monism is “the metaphysical and theological view that all is of one essence” — and from the very initials appearing in the show’s title).

I found this premiere episode sufficiently interesting, with the occasional type of laugh that only David Milch seems capable of pulling out of me, and I’ll definitely tune back in next week. But I certainly can’t tell you whether you should tune in, nor can I say whether I think this show is going to head towards a good place or a bad place. And that’s not just due to my quasi-incapacity from the “Sopranos” finale. It also comes from the fact that I think this is a show that’s going to require quite an investment before the call can be made. In fact, I read three reviews of the show last week from the three TV critics I regularly read, and each wrote their review after watching the show’s first three episodes (which appears to be the number of episodes HBO sent out to those critics who aren’t me). Two of them basically thought it was a twisted mess, with not much hope of taking a righteous path, while the third thought it was ambitious project that had a chance of turning out decently. So it sounds like it’ll take some episodes for us all to come to our own conclusion about the show’s merit. I, for one, will give it the benefit of the doubt and try to stick it out, if only because I desperately want “John” to amount to something, so that the sacrifice of a fourth season of “Deadwood” will not be for naught.

And hell, at least it has some cool surf scenes (actually, the most interesting piece I read about the show was one in Slate, discussing how the show “gets a good deal right about surfing”).

Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. He appreciated the callbacks in tonight’s finale of “The Sopranos,” none more so than the mention of Gigi dying on the shitter. Also, he’ll happily admit that he busted out the “Journey: Greatest Hits” while getting ready for work this morning, and it’s the loudest he’s sang in the shower in quite some time.

Tony from Jersey

"The Sopranos" and "John from Cincinnati" / The TV Whore
June 11, 2007

TV | June 11, 2007 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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