The Sopranos

It’s been nearly a year since Big Pussy went to sleep with the fishes, an eternity for fans of The Sopranos forced to make do with perpetual reruns and the recent DVD release of the show’s first season while series creator David Chase took his sweet time plotting the further adventures of Tony Soprano and crew. Was it worth the wait?

Conventional wisdom appears to hold that the show’s second season was something of a disappointment, a victim of the sophomore slump. Indeed, Sopranos Mark II was a messier, more sprawling affair than its predecessor, encompassing both higher peaks and lower valleys than the tightly constructed first run. Powerhouse episodes involving Tony’s trip to Italy and a visiting Hollywood production were followed by a mid-season lull, the nadir of which was the trite and silly "From Where to Eternity", which depicted the aftermath of the shooting of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). With its supernatural bugaboos, out-of-character dialogue and overly schematic motivations, the episode resembled nothing so much as a late installment of Twin Peaks; for the first time, The Sopranos seemed like just another TV show. But the second season finished strongly with what may be the two best episodes of the series to date: "Knight in White Satin Armor," which provided the unexpected culmination of the season-long romance between Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and his errant capo Richie Aprile; and "Funhouse," a dream-soaked reverie which recalled Twin Peaks in its glory days and sent FBI snitch Big Pussy Bompensiero to the bottom of the ocean.

Soon after the second season wrapped, The Sopranos was dealt a heavy blow by the death of Nancy Marchand, who played Tony’s monstrous mother Livia. As the third season opens, however, Livia is still alive and still very much a thorn in Tony’s side. Having hastily provided her with stolen airline tickets in an attempt to relocate her to Arizona, Tony now frets that his mother will testify against him in exchange for immunity. Since the disappearance of Cooperating Witness #16 – Big Pussy – the Feds have been frustrated in their attempts to build a RICO case against the mob boss. "Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood," the first of two new episodes premiering March 4th on HBO, concerns the efforts of the FBI’s Mafia task force to wiretap the Soprano residence.

HBO’s decision to air the first two episodes back-to-back was a wise one. "Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood" functions as an elegant, ingeniously structured prologue; rather than plunging us back into the world of The Sopranos, it brings us up to speed through teasing glimpses of each of the family members as they are tailed by various undercover agents. Each Soprano has an FBI code name: There’s "Mrs. Bing" (Edie Falco), seen taking tennis lessons with sexpot Adrianna (Drea de Matteo); "Princess Bing" (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), now a freshman at Columbia University; "Baby Bing" (Robert Iler), cutting class and sneaking smokes with a crowd of toughs; and Der Bingle himself (James Gandolfini), embroiled in a garbage contracting war sure to become one of the main storylines this year. Taut and suspenseful, "Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood" would no doubt come as a tantalizing but disappointingly brief opening salvo were it airing alone.

The follow-up, "Proshai, Livushka," delivers the goods. Astoundingly dense with plot, character and detail, the episode exhibits both the (few) head-scratching flaws and (many) exhilarating highlights endemic to the prior season. The biggest blunder: an unforgivably cheesy scene between Tony and Livia in which they never appear in the same frame together and Livia utters nothing but stock phrases and makes her usual dismissive gestures. Either the shots of Marchand are outtakes from a previous episode or they were filmed months before the rest of the scene, but whatever the case, the result resembles nothing so much as The Trail of the Pink Panther, the Inspector Clouseau movie cobbled from the cutting room floor after Peter Sellers’ death. There are a few other lapses, too, such as a moment where Tony seems to forget his phone is bugged and the weirdly offhand introduction of a major new character.

But the payoff comes with the death of Livia, who gets the farewell she deserves – a wake for a woman nobody mourns. The deliriously awkward memorial service is an encapsulation of everything that makes The Sopranos so special, bringing together a mix of characters both major and minor, all of whom are expertly delineated and a joy to watch. There’s wisecracking Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) and his gentle giant of a henchman, Bobby Bacala (Steven R. Schirripa); inquisitive Italian import Furio (Federico Castelluccio) and well-meaning chef Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia); goofball goombahs Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt) and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico). It’s an embarrassment of riches, even with the loss of three major players from the previous season (one of whom makes a startling split-second appearance). But the rising stars to keep your eyes on this season are the Soprano offspring. There’s a shocking encounter early in "Proshai, Livushka" between Tony and a potential suitor of daughter Meadow, one that indicates David Chase has no plans to soften his characters as time goes on (the Archie Bunker syndrome). And as A.J. Soprano, Robert Iler shows signs of rivaling his TV dad in terms of erasing the line between actor and role. Iler’s A.J. is a frighteningly realistic troubled teen – there always seems to be something enormous and terrifying bubbling up inside him, and this may be the season it comes to the surface. As always, though, Gandolfini and Falco form the bedrock of the series, continually setting the bar for television acting higher as Tony and Carmela. Gandolfini finds exactly the right note for Tony’s mixed reaction to his mother’s death, and Carmela – well, if you enjoyed her kiss-off to Father Phil in season one, just wait until you get a load of her eulogy for Livia. The show’s dark heart may be dead, but The Sopranos is still alive and kicking.

Scott Von Doviak