Like the song, the watercooler debate about The Sopranos finale seems to be going on, and on, and on.... And not everyone appears to be happy -- either with the show's ending or the degree of debate itself. While HBO is encouraging active discussion, Wikipedia has suspended general editing on their Soprano's page (wonder why!). Everyone I've talked with seems to have a strong opinion about both the meaning of the fade-to-black ending and an even stronger opinion about whether or not it was a "good" ending. Judging by people's apparent investment in these questions alone, I think one would have to call the show's finale a success. Or not.
Although the show generated huge ratings (relatively), there has been a lot of public praise and blame for the finale. Some feel the ending was gutless, while others have been kinder in their views. My favorite among these has been from erstwhile Journey frontman Steve Perry, who waxed poetic in an interview about all things Sopranos and Journey and Perry related, but praised the show's ending. [I'll listen to anything Steve Perry says.] Even so, others in the industry are benchmarking their own show's against the Soprano's now. The production crew for Lost couldn't wait, apparently, to assure their fans that the ending to Lost, which won't even happen until 2010, won't be as "murky" as Tony's exit.
Amongst all of this "was-it-or-wasn't-it," the PTI guys found the crux of the debate and put it simply: Was the Sopranos finale existential brilliance, or cowardly cheese? I'd prefer to take up the spirit of the debate rather than the conclusions, and ask about viewer expectations and storyteller obligations. While some fans seemed content to fill in that now-notorious blank at the end of the episode, others cry that David Chase and co. served up nothing but a big tease.
I have to say that I fall into the latter category on this one. As any Google search will tell you, fans don't need much in the way of incentive (or permission) to craft their own versions of plotlines, shows, etc., and are quite comfortable amending or ignoring certain facts in order to do so. So it's not as if deciding to provide the show with a "real" ending would have robbed the fans of anything. No, what the fans were robbed of was a chance to see how master storytellers would have brought the show to a conclusion. It's not as if the show was afraid to be definitive (RIP, Christopher).
More significantly, I think an ending like this violates the trust bond between viewer and show. When viewers follow a show and accept its invitation to enter into the world created by the writers, directors, and actors, they have an obligation to see their efforts through to the end. Pullling up short at the very end and saying to the audience, "You finish it. We're done" is essentially an insult. It's not democratic, because TV is always too fascistic to let that slide. It's just lazy and disrespectful. Finish what you started, and have the courage to stand behind your story. Don't give the viewer homework.
I fully acknowledge and respect the difficulty of ending a show, but appreciate shows that end well all the more because of it. The great controversy of Seinfeld's ending almost made me forget the ridiculousness of St. Elsewhere's and the bloated self-importance of MASH, but nearly all pale in comparison to the brilliance of Newhart's time-warp. My point is that the endings don't always have to be consistent within the shows themselves, but I think they must provide some creative vision and conclusion. After leading the viewers down a path for so many seasons, show them where it was all leading. That's all I ask.
So, I'm curious as to what others think about the responsibilities TV shows have to their viewers, particularly with respect to finales. Is it enough just to stop, or is it necessary to reach completion? Is narrative ambiguity on TV artistic, or annoying?