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Dead Tree Alert: Sleeping with the Fishes

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In the print TIME this week, I preview the first two of the last nine Sopranos episodes ever, debuting on HBO April 8. The spoilers in this piece are not very spoilery, but if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, you may want to bookmark this and save it. Or, you know, forget I ever wrote it. Here’s a (nonspoilery) sample:

[N]early every season opens with a newspaper landing in Tony’s driveway, underlining the suburban setting and reminding us that, to some extent, the show intends to deliver the news. Tony (James Gandolfini) has fretted about terrorism and suffered through recessions; wife Carmela (Edie Falco) dabbled in stocks during the NASDAQ craze and in real estate when that market took off. There have been parallels to politics–like Tony’s Clintonian appetites and his Bushian yen for simple answers–and direct references, as when Carmela copped to voting for Bush.

In a broader sense, The Sopranos is about male baby-boomer American leadership in an age of irreconcilable demands and diminished expectations. As a Mob boss and a family man, Tony is caught between what he is and what he imagines himself to be. He cannot muster the stoicism the past demanded of men nor the sensitivity the present does. He whines to his therapist and “goes about in pity” for himself (the quote is from an Ojibwe proverb that Tony reads and that he believes applies only to other people), yet he longs for the days when men were strong and silent like Gary Cooper. He’s a hotheaded brute who imagines himself, as he says, a cool “captain-of-industry type.” He longs for the patriarchal prerogatives of bosses before him yet feels obligated to be faithful to his wife–or at least to try, kind of, once in a while.

There’s a lot you can say about The Sopranos, and a lot I left out. For instance: maybe its biggest legacy is that it cleared the way for other shows to supersede it. When The Sopranos debuted in 1999, it seemed like Game Over: no TV series was ever going to be better. But since then, other shows have taken advantage of its form- and content-boundary pushing; I’d now have to say, offhand, that The Wire and Deadwood are, overall, superior shows, not that that in any way diminishes The Sopranos’ amazingness.

What say you? Are there better TV series than The Sopranos? Or am I oobatz?