Certain things in life exist in a realm beyond criticism. The Beatles are one. Godiva chocolates are another. Is The Sopranos yet another? No, I suppose not. I thought highly of the last Sopranos season—and in particular Tony's coma-induced imaginary adventures in Costa Mesa, Calif., which I know left many viewers cold—but I confess that I stopped watching after four or five episodes. At the time I thought my reasons were personal, but it's possible I was responding more than I realized to the quality of the episodes themselves. The only plot development in The Sopranos that's ever bothered me consciously was when Tony's favorite cousin, Tony Blundetto (played by Steve Buscemi), went postal on Mr. Kim, his boss at the laundry who'd promised to stake him to a massage studio. Until then, Tony B. had seemed at peace with his decision to go straight. Abruptly, he snapped, his sole apparent motivation being the show's need to manufacture a Ralph Cifaretto/ Richie Aprile-style hothead for that season. It wasn't believable. Did series creator David Chase lose some script pages behind the Xerox machine? Did he yield to some idiot HBO executive? Or should we blame Peter Bogdanovich, the one-time boy-genius film director who plays Dr. Melfi's psychotherapist, Dr. Elliot Kupferberg? Bogdanovich directed the episode in question.
I know that The Wire has replaced The Sopranos in many people's hearts. I haven't seen The Wire and so can't comment on whether it's the greatest American TV show of all time. To get hooked at this late stage would require more time than I'm willing to invest.
I agree with you that people watch The Sopranos more for its intricate depiction of family life than for the blood. The mob storylines are good, but what makes The Sopranos a classic of the genre is the way Tony's life as a thug and a killer blends with his life as a nouveau riche suburban dad (albeit one with severe anger-management issues). I think that's why so many people say their favorite-ever Sopranos episode is the one where Tony takes a break from touring colleges in Maine with his daughter, Meadow, to garrote Febby Petrulio, a mob rat he's spotted at a rural gas station. The Sopranos are like a family of immigrants from a far-off country (MobWorld) blending imperfectly into the contemporary American bourgeoisie. The incongruities are a source of humor and tension, each milieu throwing the other into high relief.
I can't predict how the show will end, but I can tell you how I want it to end. I want Tony put away or rubbed out. I read somewhere that Chase is disinclined to "punish" Tony in the series denouement because that would smack too much of the middle-class morality imposed by Hollywood's Hays office on the Warner Brothers gangster classics of the 1930s. But the real trouble with letting Tony show that crime pays isn't that it would be nihilistic. It's that it would be unrealistic. As you point out, the mob isn't nearly as powerful as it used to be, and this decline is very much a theme of TheSopranos. In some episodes, the setting could just as easily be a steel factory or (to take a thoroughly up-to-date example) an urban daily newspaper. In the real world, the Tony Sopranos don't end up on top. They end up either in prison or sprawled across a tile floor and bleeding from the head in one of the better Italian restaurants. I'd like to see Chase honor that reality.
Also, wouldn't it be fun to see A.J., Tony and Carmela's son—who's in the process of evolving from a teenage fuckup into a full-fledged menace—arrive at some spectacularly self-destructive end? The show has been encouraging us to expect some sort of big trouble from A.J., I feel. I wonder what it will be.