Back with a vengeance

HBO's 'The Sopranos' returns for a third season of extraordinary television.

March 03, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

He's got a new member on his crew who wants to kill him, federal agents crawling around his basement trying to plant a listening device, a mother who might testify against him in a racketeering case, and a war among his hot-headed soldiers over garbage hauling contracts that's making headlines on the front page of the Newark Star-Ledger.

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the middle-aged New Jersey crime boss, can handle all of that. What he can't handle is coming downstairs one morning in his bathrobe to find his daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), a freshman at Columbia University, on the living room couch watching TV with a classmate named Noah (Patrick Tully). The young man is biracial - his father is Jewish, his mother African-American. It's the African-American part that bothers Tony.

After Noah and Meadow leave, Tony comes face to face with a box of Uncle Ben's rice in his kitchen and passes out cold on the floor from one of those panic attacks he hasn't had in months. Get Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco); this is still a very troubled guy.

Welcome back to the mesmerizing and marvelous world of HBO's "The Sopranos." In its first season, I thought it was the best cop drama on television. Last year, I thought it was the best drama - period. What's left, the best series in American television? It almost goes without saying. You won't know how much you missed "The Sopranos" until you hear the driving sound of A3's "Woke Up This Morning" theme song, and see those harsh, industrial, rust-belt images flash past as Tony heads home along the New Jersey Turnpike.

HBO is presenting two one-hour episodes of "The Sopranos" back to back tomorrow night, and the move is typical of the wise care and careful feeding America's finest cable channel has provided for the brilliant writing of David Chase, the series' creator. Chase is a storyteller on top of his game, and that game involves taking the time to carefully lay out all the pieces on the chess board of Tony Soprano's universe until we not only see the world as he does, but actually feel it from inside his skin.

The first hour of "The Sopranos" opens with a sleepy Tony slowly padding down the driveway of his plush suburban home in bathrobe (open front), shorts and T-shirt to get the morning paper. The most dramatic event in the whole hour is Tony's super-sized water heater bursting and flooding his basement just as a crew of federal agents is about to enter and plant a bug down there.

And yet, the tension is exquisite, because of the multidimensional way in which Chase shows an army of feds trying to fit a surveillance noose around Tony's neck, while constantly reminding us of the tick-tick-tick of the emotional time bomb waiting to explode within his psyche. Everything in the hour works toward this end right down to the music, which includes Sting's "Every Breath You Take (I'll Be Watching You)," as the investigators mount their effort to breach the security of Tony's house.

But, as wonderful as the first hour is, it's not enough to fill our craving for "The Sopranos" after the series has been off the air for more than 10 months. Enter hour No. 2, which not only brings virtually every character from last year who is still alive back on screen, but brings them all back into the living room of Tony and Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) for the wake of Tony's mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand). By the time Tony's New Age-crazy older sister, Janice (Aida Turturro), demands that everyone in the room share a private memory of Livia, Tony's head seems about to explode with all the stress, guilt and pent-up psychic baggage monster-mom left him as a parting gift.

For those interested in how television is made, a scene between Tony and mom just before her death in which he warns her not to testify against him, was created in the editing room using old footage of Marchand, who died last year, and interfacing it with Gandolfini playing the scene as if he were talking to her. Later, Tony explodes in the office of his psychiatrist: "I'm glad she's dead. I'm not just glad she's dead, I wished she'd die. I wished her dead. You know what I felt when I heard she died? Relief flooded my veins."

You won't see similar feelings expressed in any other weekly series on television. Leading men on network TV are not allowed to verbalize such culturally taboo feelings; it might make some viewers dislike them, and that might mean tune-out, the greatest taboo of all in television land.

"The Sopranos" works on so many levels: The blood struggle between Tony, mom and his Uncle Junior, with all its sick, dark, Freudian undercurrents as the stuff of Greek tragedy. But the series' postmodern running commentary on media depictions of gangsters, while far lighter, is just as profound.

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