Almost 12 million people tune in for the series finale of HBO’s critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning Mob-family drama The Sopranos on this day in 2007.
The mastermind behind The Sopranos was David Chase, a longtime writer, producer and director for TV series such as The Rockford Files, I’ll Fly Away and Northern Exposure. Chase drew inspiration for his latest series from his Italian-American childhood growing up in New Jersey, when he was fascinated by William Wellman’s great 1931 gangster film The Public Enemy, starring Jimmy Cagney. The Sopranos was an immediate hit with critics when it premiered in January 1999. At its center was the New Jersey Mafia boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), whose attacks of anxiety early in the series send him into the office of a therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). It soon becomes clear that Tony has a stressful life managing his family–including his vindictive mother (Nancy Marchand) and uncle (Dominic Chianese), his materialistic but good-hearted wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and his two teenage children, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and Anthony Jr., or A.J. (Robert Iler)–as well as his crew of lieutenants, notably Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt) and Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli).
The Sopranos brought to television a complex, compassionate vision of Mafia life similar to those previously portrayed on the big screen by directors like Francis Ford Coppola (the three Godfather movies) and Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Goodfellas). Both The Godfather and Goodfellas were touchstones for Chase (and his characters) throughout the series, as was The Public Enemy, which Tony memorably watches after his mother’s death in the show’s third season.
According to Alessandra Stanley, writing in the New York Times during the final season of The Sopranos: “The series lowered the bar on permissible violence, sex and profanity at the same time that it elevated viewers’ taste, cultivating an appetite for complexity, wit and cinematic stylishness on a serial drama in which psychological themes flickered and built and faded and reappeared. The best episodes had equal amounts of high and low appeal, an alchemy of artistry and gutter-level blood and gore, all of it leavened with humor.” As Stanley recounts, critics and pop-culture observers were often hyperbolic in their praise for the show, calling it Dickensian or Shakespearian; the author Norman Mailer, for one, called The Sopranos the closest thing to the Great American Novel in today’s culture. Fans loved it as well: The show’s audience reached a peak of some 18 million viewers during its fourth season. The show’s breakout success, along with that of the comedy series Sex and the City (which debuted six months before The Sopranos), established HBO’s reputation as the home of some of TV’s most popular original programming.
In the final season of The Sopranos, Tony survives a near-fatal shooting and begins to contemplate his own aging and mortality. Meanwhile, it appears that a full-scale war is brewing between the crime families of New York and New Jersey, as the hated Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) takes control of New York after former boss Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) dies in prison. When Phil goes after Tony and his crew, they react in turn, and the bodies stack up. In the closing scene of the open-ended finale, Tony meets Carmela, Meadow and A.J. in a diner for dinner. As soon as the screen went black, fans immediately began debating what actually happened, and mourning the end of a show that many had considered the best in the history of television.