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Why ‘The Sopranos’ still lives on 10 years later

Ten years later, they still pull you back

Ten years later, they still pull you back in: Episodes of "The Sopranos" stream on HBO GO and HBO Now. Credit: HBO / Abbot Genser

Ten years ago this Saturday, our screens went black as “The Sopranos” ended its six-season run. Except they really never did: “The Sopranos” remains with us, in our hearts and minds, and in HBO’s, too. The show is still a hugely popular series on HBO GO/Now. But why? Obviously, because of HBO GO/Now, which have kept it alive and well. Other reasons:

1. THAT ENDING The door of Holsten’s Ice Cream Parlor opens, Tony turns around, then . . . fade to black. Some hated the final black screen, some not. But nonclosure has been good for business, and a topic of still-constant debate. I’ve flip-flopped on alive-or-dead a number of times over the years, but perhaps all creator David Chase sought to establish was that Tony didn’t live or die. Characters in fiction don’t “live on” or for that matter ever “die” either, because they never actually “lived” in the first place. Sounds “meta” but “The Sopranos” always defied ultimate analysis — and conventional TV tricks — anyway. So, why not?! In any event, check back with me in 10 years for my next unprovable theory.

2. HEY, IT’S A MOB SHOW! There is something timeless about the mob movie, something primal, too. Going back to “The Public Enemy,” it invokes an inner conflict in the observer — you actively root for (say) Michael Corleone against all better judgment. But Chase’s core idea further embroidered this by creating the conflict in Tony’s head. In his morally relative, morally suspect estimation, the past was good, tradition was good, loyalty was good, family was good. But he was caught up in a new world that had subverted each. Part of the trick of “The Sopranos” was to explore that head, and find common ground, perhaps common cause, with the viewer. That Tony killed people rattled this “common ground,” but never demolished it. Call it “cathartic” or call it the “guiltiest of pleasures,” but Tony was primal, and primal never goes out of style.

3. REPEATS WELL Chase was an old-school storyteller who eschewed a new-school urge to stuff the screen with gewgaws that made “The Sopranos” seem hip, or cool, or with-it. There’s almost no technology, for example, and thank goodness for that. Because we are all such techno-snobs, any effort to have shown off some circa 1999 gadget would be met with ridicule, turning this from classic to camp. There was one blip in the pilot, when Meadow turns on her Jurassic desktop and it suddenly blurts out “You’ve got mail!”

4. JAMES GANDOLFINI, EDIE FALCO We now know how great their performances were. What we didn’t know at the series’ outset was how great they would be. Both were relative unknowns to the general audience back in 1999, but ultimately came to define “The Sopranos” and become defined by it. They’d go on to other fine roles (Gandolfini died in 2013) but hardly culture-bending ones, or any that expunged the memory of these, or that force a reinterpretation of them. As such, they are forever preserved in this amber. For newbies, both seem as fresh here as if they’d never even left.

5. ‘THE SOPRANOS’ WAS ‘FILMIC’ Sorry for the fancy word, but it was. Chase had wanted to do a movie in the first place, and essentially wrote (with help) the entire series as a movie. That was novel at the time, and tended to undermine viewer habits that had been shaped by 60 years of TV cliches. The series as a whole had a beginning-middle-end structure, of course, from which sprang an octopus of tangents, detours and sideshows over 86 episodes. This made “The Sopranos” both a) unpredictable and b) perfectly suited to a generation that absorbs whole series in one messy gulp (aka bingeing).

6. A POSTMODERN SERIES FOR A POST-MOD TIME To Chase’s considerable credit, he never explained anything; ergo, there is no ultimate meaning. The modernist impulse was to attach meaning to everything, but that’s reversed here. There is no “good versus bad.” The moral arc of this particular universe does not bend toward justice, or even bend. Tony does not become a “better” or a more “nuanced” person. All therapy does — for example — is to give him an occasional excuse to hit on Dr. Melfi or sharpen some plot against an enemy. Freud — a modernist — would be appalled. But Generation X and millennial viewers have been raised on a madcap tube diet of shows such as “Mr. Robot,” “Game of Thrones,” “South Park,” “DeGrassi,” “Buffy” and so on. Their TV world is not rational, nor does it seek ultimate meaning. “The Sopranos” fits right in.

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