I know I wasn't completely alone in thinking that the last "half-season" of The Sopranos was the show at or near its best: at least some of my friends agree with me.
For me, those episodes really saved the show for me. As much as I enjoyed the fourth and fifth seasons, I couldn't help but feel that Chase et al. were pandering to the "Bro" crowd: the people whose primary interest in the series was to watch charismatic, funny guys doing horrible shit to people, partly because, let's face it, there's something satisfying about the fantasy of being able to solve all sorts of problems by beating the shit out of the (putative?) source of the problem.
I'm not sure that I would have felt all that strongly about this, except that HBO had two other shows that (for the most part) avoided this kind of weaselly sort-of-glorification of sociopaths. Apart from The Wire's inexplicable romanticization of Omar (the gangsta Robin Hood), none of its criminals are presented as being particular pleasant or goofy or fun to hang with. There's also a dimension of real world tragedy to a character like Stringer Bell - diligently going to community college, trying his best to move into the big leagues, but utterly unprepared for it. And, in Deadwood, while Ian McShane's Al Swearengen is certainly charismatic, the show doesn't let that get him off the hook in the way that The Sopranos has, in the past, let the funny-guy antics and Tarantino-esque dialogue of Sylvio, Paulie, and Christopher cover up their sociopathic tendencies.
Al Swearengen is also great for another reason: the gangsters on The Sopranos are just hoods - violent guys who were too lazy or greedy to settle for living an ordinary, average Joe life. But tktk went into the wilderness and built something out of nothing: his accomplishment is tied up with his willingness to use violence.
But Season 6A changed that:
First, the opening Dennis Potter-ish episodes demanded more of the show's audience than anything in previous seasons. While I don't like it when a series says "screw you" to its audience, I do like it when it rewards a demand for a greater and/or different type of engagement. It's too bad that so many of the shows fans weren't interested in meeting this demand. Usually at this point I'd say something like "I don't blame them", but, in this case, I do blame them. What they wanted seemed to have been more of the same: edgy, violent, goombah hi-jinx and fetishization of mafia politics and power plays - i.e., a mix of some of the more superficial, yet distinctive, elements of Pulp Fiction and Casino. Watching mainly to see who's going to get "whacked".
Second, Chase et al. decided to tackle head-on the fact that, whatever else these guys are, they 're also (perhaps primarily) violent thugs, not heroes or funny "good-time" guys: that they're outlaws because they're greedy and not for any bigger romantic/tragic reasons (or even any bigger socio-economic reasons).
Anyway, I'm hoping that the remainder of Season 6 will continue to take a clear-eyed look at these characters and not revert to pandering to crowd who thinks that this is a good idea.