Monday, June 05, 2006

Why 'The Sopranos' still works for me

If there's one thing you can be sure of with a television program, it's this: When you get to the end of the season, there will be a cliffhanger waiting for you. It doesn't seem to matter if it's a drama or a comedy, the final episode of a season is sure to leave audiences on the edge of the seat wondering about...something.

Since the season-ending cliff-hanger was first popularized in the 1980s, thanks to the "Who Shot JR" storyline of "Dallas," its become a cliche. You can't sit down to watch the final episode of a show without wondering what sort of mystery is going to be awaiting you at the end of the hour (or half-hour, as the case may be).

It's like M. Night Shyamalan was made programming director of every network in North America.

And it is because of this cliche of cliffhangers that "The Sopranos" still works for me.

Some argue that the show peaked at the close of the second season, and while the first two seasons were certainly high points, and while I'd agree that it has, occasionally, drifted since then, thanks to a solid creative team, it has yet to jump the shark. And the fact that tonight's episode -- the last until January 2007 -- contained no cliff-hanging moments just proves that.

The thing about cliff-hangers, and why they worked twenty years ago, is that it creates tension. It creates a mystery. It creates suspense. Because you don't know what's going to happen.

Today, with every show under the sun trying to come up with the weirdest show-stopper of a cliff-hanger, the suspense is gone. You can feel it coming from a mile away. You can sit back and relax, knowing that something bizarre and shocking is going to happen, and the answers won't present themselves for another year, and when that happens, you're not surprised, because you saw it coming.

Maybe you didn't see exactly *what* was coming. But you saw that something was.

This season of "The Sopranos" spun that cliche 180 degrees. WHile tonight's episode pushed the tension with certain subplots, and made everyone think that things were going to spill over into some frantic, violent cliff-hanger, nothing happened.

And in doing nothing, they succeeded in doing the one thing that other television shows only dream of doing -- surprising the audience.

To my knowledge (and because I'm far from in the know, this is subject to change) there are only 8 episodes of the Sopranos left before the program leaves the airwaves forever. And for breaking new ground in dozens of ways, not limited to but including season-ending episodes without a cliff-hanger in sight, it will be missed.

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