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Back With a Vengeance
'The Sopranos' Returns Tonight After a Long Hiatus -- and Richly Rewards Fans for Their Patience

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

So eagerly awaited that the term "eagerly awaited" is a ridiculous understatement, "The Sopranos" begins its sixth and reportedly final full season tonight on HBO, and advance viewing of the first four installments suggests that television's greatest drama series has only gotten greater.

Twice within those first four new episodes, Tony the clan patriarch and godfather asks: "Who am I? Where am I going?" The questions are elemental, even kind of corny, but millions of viewers will be on the edges of their couches, breathlessly following Tony on his quest for the answers.

Tony's journey, which will occupy 12 weekly episodes this year and an additional eight starting in January, already has been one of the most rewarding and enthralling in the history of the medium. But wait, it gets better. Or, in terms of putting a viewer through the proverbial emotional wringer, it gets worse. It might even call for some newly minted accolades, because it truly is a television landmark that leaves lots of other landmarks in the dust.

Creator and Executive Producer David Chase has insisted that the journey of Tony, Carmela and such maddeningly mysterious new characters as Kevin Finnerty will end with those final eight chapters, no matter how loud the outcry from viewers or HBO executives. But at a glittery preview screening Tuesday night at New York's Museum of Modern Art, dressed in a moderately mobsterly pinstripe suit, Chase looked fit and ready to keep writing. In TV, we must never say never.

And, incredibly enough, he appears to have taken "The Sopranos" to an even higher level than it had achieved. A critic needn't really worry about overdoing the encomiums here or raising viewer expectations too high; once you plunge into the whirlpool of the new "Sopranos," you'll forget what anybody said about it anyway.

As for finding ways to keep the show going beyond next season's Final Eight, there are plenty of possibilities. Even if Tony were to expire in the last chapter -- or, considering the devilish capriciousness of Chase and his cohorts, sooner than that -- life for the family could go on. As the new season starts, for instance, it begins to look as though Tony and Carmela's trouble-prone and sullen son, A.J. (simmering Robert Iler), who has shown no interest in the family business, might develop some, drawn into it by harrowing events.

Not necessarily the way Michael Corleone was converted in "The Godfather," mind you. And then again -- not necessarily not.

It would be, however, grossly unfair not only to Chase and Executive Producer Brad Grey (the industry genius who has become head of Paramount since "The Sopranos" last aired), but also to all the "Sopranos" faithful to reveal what the heart-stopping series of events entails -- or even to divulge only a few events. It's nothing if not eventful -- a mad grand opera combined with a crazed comic opera that manages to be a tour of contemporary America, as well.

Conjecture about a Tony-less "Sopranos" might be folly for the rudimentary reason that James Gandolfini has been so toweringly powerful in the role. "Iconic" is overused these days, and, obviously, TV can stamp out icons almost as rapidly as the mint stamps out quarters, but Tony Soprano is among the largest-looming fabricated characters ever. In the first five seasons, we've seen Tony coldly order many a hit, commit a few himself, even consider murdering his mother before she could murder him. And yet, as Gandolfini plays him, you -- how shall we put it? -- kinda like the guy.

He seems as though he'd be a good neighbor to have, providing, of course, you kept your doggy under close surveillance.

Part of the entertaining irony of "The Sopranos" continues to be the fact that Tony and Carmela (played flawlessly by Edie Falco, Gandolfini's equal) deal with the same mundane details of life that nettle other middle-class parents, although unlike most, Tony does have the option of settling scores by breaking necks. To the credit of Chase and the series's other skillful writers, watching the family deal with W-2 forms, health care, malfunctioning cell phones, malfunctioning building contractors and other banalities remains wittily amusing.

Chase is acutely sensitive, too, as a social observer, forever tossing authentic new ingredients into the melting pot and making them relevant elements in the Sopranos' realm -- a rap star who considers hiring one of Tony's boys to give his career a boost with a bit of good-publicity violence, for example, or a pair of antiabortion demonstrators who have no moral qualms about disturbing the peace in front of a hospital. The blind smile riveted to one fanatic's face is as scary as the scowl of the meanest of mobsters.

In its first seasons, there was a shot of the World Trade Center in the opening credits of each episode. It later was removed, and "The Sopranos" reflects the realities of the post-9/11 world. Refusing to admit a delegate to a conference because the man forgot to bring a "photo ID," the young woman on duty notes, shrugging, "It's a whole new world." Indeed. Two FBI agents who had been assigned to the mob show up at a local diner (more meals are served in "The Sopranos" than Julia Child ever dreamed of preparing) lamenting that they've now been assigned to the terrorism beat.

That news is met with some skepticism by Christopher -- played by the explosive and indispensable Michael Imperioli. Although the death of Christopher's beloved Adriana was one of the climactic horrors of the last "Sopranos" cycle, it's conceivable you might get a glimpse of the ethereally beautiful Drea de Matteo -- who so memorably played the part -- early in the new one.

How is that possible? Chase and his creation, Tony, are increasingly enthralled by the thin line between life and death, here and now, by the beckoning, blinding light that supposedly shines from the other side. There's a pronounced Eastern influence to the new episodes, and not just in terms of philosophical musings. Little details enrich the milieu: Tony and Carmela's new passion for Japanese food; a strange encounter with a pair of bellicose Buddhists who are upset about the heating system in their monastery; or Tony pausing as he channel-surfs to watch a rerun of the ancient series "Kung Fu" on TV.

Circumstances compel Tony and other characters to face Zenlike issues of existence, fate and, especially, mortality. Hal Holbrook, looking like the spitting image of Albert Einstein, pops up in Episode 4 as a physicist given to pondering those ever-pesky universal questions about oneness with the universe: "Nothing is separate; everything is connected." In line with the miraculous reappearance of de Matteo as Adriana, it's possible that another resident of the hereafter, a good-humored ex-con played by the unmistakable Steve Buscemi, also might be spotted fleetingly.

We aren't saying he will; we aren't saying he won't. It does seem copacetic to mention minor revelations, such as: that Tony is off Prozac and that the Tony-Carmela union is back on sound footing after the acrimonious frenzy of last season; that the lethally berserk Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) is given to such delusions as having $40,000 buried somewhere in the back yard; that the intimidating Paulie (Tony Sirico) will take a break from bashing and thrashing and issuing venomous threats and find himself weeping helplessly over a stunning news flash; and that the surprisingly affecting rock star Steven Van Zandt finally will turn into bona fide actor Steven Van Zandt, his role in the show and in the family expanded.

Violence can, as usual, explode at any moment, almost always ingeniously timed and staged to catch a viewer off guard and leave him with a feeling of profound sadness. We also see, very graphically, the devastating effects violence can have -- say, a bullet fired into an unsuspecting victim at close range. The term "blown away" is more than colorful slang. Writer Terence Winter and director Tim Van Patten show us, in an early episode, the ghastly damage a gun can do. Parts of a human body can, indeed, be blown away. As obvious as that sounds, thousands of victims have been shot in hundreds of movies and suffered damage no more serious than a tiny hole in a suit jacket.

On "The Sopranos," it's different. Everything's different. That's because we are in a different dominion here, another place. Chase is making "The Sopranos" stranger, darker, more artful, more surreal -- a maze of alternate worlds to alternate worlds that still remains grounded in reality. Chase's series -- more than any other, ever -- helps justify the cheeky company slogan: "It's not TV. It's HBO."

In that sense, tonight marks much more than the return of another TV show. It's the extension of a masterpiece that sweeps you deeper into a dream. The good old days are back, and they're not just good, they're golden.

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