We have your questions right here--all those questions about what happens in the second season of "The Sopranos."
Questions about whether New Jersey mobster, and dedicated family man, Tony Soprano apologizes to his mother for having tried to smother her with a pillow last year; about the whereabouts heretofore and henceforth of hugely hefty errand boy Pussy Bompensiero, mug of mystery; about whether sinister and murderous "Uncle Junior" can talk his way out of the slammer by claiming poor health with a slimy lawyer at his side . . .
There are many more questions. Naturally, we're not going to answer them and thus risk spoiling the show. The only one we can answer in good conscience is whether "The Sopranos," returning for its second season on HBO (at 9 tonight, with repeats Tuesdays at 11 p.m.), is in as good a shape as when we last saw it.
Yes. At least as good. Still sharply observed, richly textured and deftly shaded with ironic dark humor. Uncle Junior after seeing himself in a TV news report shot in prison: "How'd I look? Be honest. Maybe I should get new frames."
Good arguments can be made that television is a producer's medium, or that it is a writer's medium, or that it is a performer's medium. Even, though very rarely, a director's medium. "The Sopranos" shows what happens when all those involved are operating at near-perfect form; it's everybody's medium. And everybody helping to tell the story of Tony Soprano and his two families--the wife and kiddies at home, the small army of officers and enlisted men on the streets--takes contagious if sometimes fiendish glee in the task.
Series creator David Chase, who wrote the season premiere with Jason Cahill, doesn't come back with some flashy, gun-blazing thunder-blaster. Instead viewers are brought up to speed with a pungent, melancholy montage to "It Was a Very Good Year" as sung by Frank Sinatra (Frank Sinatra Jr. will make a guest appearance on the show, as himself, later in the season).
There's a tiny flaw in one small detail of the montage. A shot of a sign outside a cheap motel says "Free Cable TV." More likely it would say "Free HBO," but that would have looked like unseemly self-promotion. (Has anybody ever seen a sign outside a motel that says "Free Showtime" or "Free Sundance Channel"? Maybe in the next millennium . . . )
James Gandolfini retains that peculiar mixture of power, vulnerability, ruthlessness and sentimentality that makes Tony Soprano a riveting enigma. He may have given up for now on trying to kill his hospitalized mother, played with a diabolically wicked edge by Nancy Marchand. Instead, he walks around the house saying "She's dead to me," as if actually murdering her would be a perfunctory formality.
Meanwhile, a blabbering visitor from the West arrives, Tony's older sister Janice, played as a frizzy-haired, chain-smoking slob by Aida Turturro, who allows herself to be photographed in flagrantly unflattering ways. Janice is just a little too solicitous of Mama, a little too anxious to get her back in her own home, a little too curious about the old crank's assets.
In the first two episodes of the new season, "The Sopranos" continues to play with our sympathies, to shift them about and challenge our attitudes, forcing viewers to stay alert not just to plot points but to nuances and sly detail work.
Among the details that some viewers find off-putting is the colorful language favored by Tony and his mobster pals. There are more dirty words in the first 15 minutes of tonight's season premiere than in some R-rated movies. Or so it seems. But people offended aren't likely to be "Sopranos" fans anyway, either new or returning. The salient point is, the language does not seem forced or phony but authentic.
Tony's wife, played tough and tender by Edie Falco, wants him to resume therapy. Tony auditions a new shrink but, clearly, it isn't going to work. He appeals to his former therapist, played by Lorraine Bracco, but since he has all but destroyed her practice and she is temporarily seeing clients in a motel room, she's not exactly thrilled by the notion of clasping Tony to her bosom. So to speak.
Michael Imperioli continues to exude sexually charged menace as one of Tony's top lieutenants, and other standbys--Steven Van Zandt, Dominic Chianese, Jamie Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler--uphold the high standards established last season.
Of course it's all about much more than the mob. It presents us with a group of people reacting to a time of social and technological upheaval, trying to keep the world from unraveling even as it seems to spin faster and with less mercy day by day. Every now and then Tony has one of his borderline catatonic spells, zoning out and disconnecting, and these are always frightening, disconcerting and somehow perfectly understandable.
The story's a good one, all right, and beautifully related--but there's a lot more going on in "The Sopranos" than good storytelling. This is one of the most unpretentiously profound and troubling dramas in the history of American television.
Some faction of the audience may watch the new episodes twice--the first run on Sunday nights, then the repeat on Tuesdays. Once to enjoy. And once to admire. Sometimes, "The Sopranos" is so good it hurts.