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Fade to Black

WHAT A RIDICULOUSLY DISAPPOINTING END — lacking in creativity and full of cowardice. No, I’m not just talking about the finale of The Sopranos. I’m also talking about the management shake-up atop HBO that was a saga all its own.

If you’re one of those who found the last episode perversely interesting, then don’t bother to read on. But if your reaction was The line to cancel HBO starts here, then you too felt that even if series creator David Chase (who wrote and directed the final show) was demonstrating the endless loop of Tony’s life or the inevitable moments before the hit that causes his death, the audience was still robbed of closure after eight compelling years.

I am well aware of the Internet chatter about how the last scenes all refer back to the first episode, as Chase himself portended in several pre-show interviews. And if it was done to segue into a motion-picture sequel, then that kind of crass commercialism shouldn’t be tolerated. (I checked with Chase’s manager and Sopranos executive producer Brad Grey, who tells me, “There is absolutely no discussion of the movie,” as Chase continues lolling about in France.) There’s even buzz that the real ending will be available only on the series’ final DVD because Chase wrote and shot several different ones. Either way, the last show stunk.

My extreme Howard Beale–like reaction of yelling at the TV gods was typical of many of the series’ fans: They crashed HBO’s Web site for a time Sunday night, trying to register their outrage. Others called their cable and satellite companies in huge volumes. (Already, the pay channel’s replacement series are tanking: John From Cincinnati is getting panned, Rome, Deadwood and Carnivale had their plugs pulled prematurely, and even the once-fun Entourage is sucking badly.)

HBO could suffer a wave of cancellations, all because Chase didn’t give a damn about his fans. Instead, he crapped in their faces. Those many minutes of tension-building cutaways where we only find out that Meadow can’t parallel-park are exactly why America hates Hollywood: arrogance masquerading as art.

“I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting or adding to what is there,” Chase said after the final scene aired, in what he claims is his last interview on the subject (given, with deliberate irony, to a small New Jersey newspaper). “No one was trying to be audacious, honest to God. No one was trying to blow people’s minds, or thinking, ‘Wow, this’ll [tick] them off.’ People get the impression that you’re trying to [mess] with them, and it’s not true. You’re trying to entertain them.”

Bullshit. In this final episode, Chase needed to exert himself to concoct an artful denouement. But he took the lazy way out. Aren’t writers paid to write? Maybe we all should register with the Writers Guild for our residuals, since we had to fill in the blank.

The show we all loved deserved a decent burial. Instead, it went into a black hole. Unlike some network series that end abruptly because broadcasters pull the plug without warning, The Sopranos had been slated for years to go off the air Sunday. But instead of being carefully crafted, this finale looked like it had been whipped up in a day or two. (Some of the scenes were cut so abruptly, they caused whiplash.) Let’s not forget that in later years, Chase had to be dragged kicking and screaming back to the computer to write more episodes against his will, even though The Sopranos made him rich beyond what’s reasonable. Especially now that profanity-free Tony is a big hit in syndication on A&E.

Besides, Chase enjoyed manipulating audiences by leaving loose ends. He messed with us right up until the end. Everyone remembers that famous episode (“The Pine Barrens”) where the Russian escapes in the woods, never to be heard from again. Well, the actor who plays Paulie Walnuts revealed recently to media that the final script contained a scene in which the Russian reappeared. “But when we went to shoot it, they took it out,” the thesp said. “I think David didn’t like it. He wanted the audience just to suffer.”

Some top TV critics claimed Chase fulfilled expectations by defying expectations. While the blogosphere dissected every final moment, seeing profundity in the screen going black because of Tony’s beginning-of-the-season conversation with Bobby: You wouldn’t even know it had happened; everything would just go black. Or making a game of the many foreshadowing moments: The jukebox song below “Don’t Stop Believing” was “Any Way You Want It.” Or connecting dots inside the restaurant: That guy at the bar is supposed to be Phil’s nephew from Season 6, and the trucker in the hat in the booth was the brother of the guy who was robbed by Christopher in Season 2, and the Boy Scouts were in the train store when Bobby got shot last week, and so on.

Nielsen TV-viewing data tell us that we don’t watch the tube raptly anymore, much less remember what goes on from week to week. Both are needed for such a subtle ending, if indeed subtlety was the intention, to resonate. Besides, The Sopranos was not a show that went on inside your head. It was a richly visual series whose most memorable moments were graphic and in your face and damn proud of it. Like Tony, it was defiant. This end was whimpering.

SO TOO DID TIME WARNER CEO-designate Jeff Bewkes cop out by de facto replacing HBO chairman-CEO Chris Albrecht with two insiders who each lack the creative nuts to do their new jobs. (Albrecht, you may recall, was axed after his Las Vegas arrest for a drunken brawl with his girlfriend while on the company clock that led to the exposure of at least one other similar incident, an assault on a former girlfriend/HBO exec in 1991 that was kept quiet by — you guessed it — Bewkes.)

By elevating COO Bill Nelson to chairman-CEO and putting promoter Richard Plepler in as top programmer, Bewkes not only continued the ossification of HBO, he guaranteed that the venerable pay channel is about to break a hip. “I want to say to Bewkes, ‘Is there something wrong with the outside world?’ ” an ex-HBO insider railed to me. “Did they really talk to anybody who wasn’t inside the company? I doubt it.”

Among the missed opportunities was hiring HBO alum Peter Liguori, now the entertainment president for the Fox Broadcasting Co. Under his leadership, FX rose from nothing to the edgiest of the top five basic-cable networks, with critically acclaimed programs like Nip/Tuck, The Shield and Rescue Me and the award-winning FX Original Movies franchise. Or NBC entertainment-prez castoff Kevin Reilly, who eons ago, as head of Chase’s management company, Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, was the unsung hero who carried the Sopranos torch through two years of rejections until it saw the light of day on HBO.

Of course, Colin Callender, the president of HBO Films, was initially brought in as Albrecht’s heir apparent. But “the walking hissy fit,” as one of my sources derided him, generated so many complaints inside and outside the company that HBO had to fuhgeddaboudit.

It’s widely believed that, right now, Showtime is on the verge of whacking HBO. “They won’t make as much money, they won’t get as many Emmy nominations, but they have more distinctive programming than HBO,” one TV insider analyzed. The general feeling is that HBO needs to wise up and get back to basics and again make the kind of unique programming that can’t air on basic-cable or commercial networks. That’s what defines pay television. Look at the impact good programming like The Sopranos had on audiences. Without it, HBO’s future could resemble that fade-to-black finale.  

For more Nikki Finke check out Deadline Hollywood Daily at www.deadlinehollywooddaily.com

Email at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com

Read Scott Foundas’ take on the Sopranos finale