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Fateful ‘Sopranos’

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Come Sunday, we'll know what happens to New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the kingpin of HBO's beloved drama. The fate of "The Sopranos" may already be set in concrete. No matter what goes down at 9 on Sunday night, we already know the show has slipped significantly during the two halves of its sixth and final season. A great series has become merely good — at times, ordinary — shrinking the legacy of what was the most acclaimed series of our generation.

Don't believe me? Recall the maudlin scenes surrounding Tony's recovery from a gunshot wound last year, or, much worse, the meandering dream sequence surrounding his bedside vigil.

In recent weeks, Tony developed a gambling habit overnight only to see it vanish when the plotline bored the show's writing squad.

And who could have predicted Tony's complicated therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) would end as they did last week, with a study suggesting therapy only supports his lifestyle?

In the show's prime, all of the these events would have been handled delicately, engulfing us like waves over many episodes, if not whole seasons — the way change happens in our own lives, one reason we fell so hard for the show.

Not this season. The program's leisurely pace, spiked by the occasional whacking, has been abandoned in the mad dash to wrap up the series before time runs out.

For this viewer, "The Sopranos" legacy has taken a hit — with repercussions for the entire series.

I've been Netflixing the show's second season in recent weeks, since I hopped aboard "The Sopranos" bandwagon later than most.

Now, I might click Season Two off my Netflix queue and go for another series instead.

In our DVD/On Demand lifestyle, a show that overstays its welcome risks damaging its economic afterlife.

Take "Frasier," NBC's brilliant comedy starring Kelsey Grammer as the fussy but lovable shrink. Creatively, the series was all but spent after its seventh season, but on it went until dwindling ratings forced its cancellation.

When I flip channels now and land on a "Frasier" rerun, I often keep on surfing. I might get a crackerjack episode from season four, or a stale one from season nine. Cable offers too many choices for me to take that risk with my leisure time.

Yet "Cheers," the show which begat Dr. Frasier Crane, ended its own run with far fewer artistic compromises despite key cast changes.

Money usually can be blamed for why a show lingers past its expiration date. If the ratings are still better than what any pilot will draw, it makes sense to maintain an existing series on life support a little longer.

But "Sopranos" creator David Chase operated, one thought, under a different set of standards, taking his sweet time between seasons to hone the episodes and calling it quits this season even though HBO still hoped to keep it in its lineup.

Maybe Mr. Chase has one last surprise to unveil Sunday, a revelation worthy of his show's rich past, a capper so ingenious the sins of the final season will be washed away.

If not, we may never look at "The Sopranos" the same way again.

I know I won't.

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