When The Sopranos returns tonight for the start of its long-awaited fifth season on HBO, it takes exactly 81 seconds to be reminded that this is not just another television series. The Sopranos is weekly TV drama as the Great American Novel.
The camera opens on the back yard of Tony and Carmela Soprano's sprawling suburban New Jersey home. The pool and the barbecue need cleaning. Leaves lay scattered about, and the water in the pool is deathly still.
There's an air of emptiness and loneliness to the tableau as the camera stops for a moment to look at (but not into) the window of the bedroom that Tony (James Gandolfini) and Carmela (Edie Falco) once shared -- before their separation at the end of season four. Are they back together?
Then the focus shifts to the front of the house, stopping on the morning newspaper at the foot of the circular drive. Only this time, for the first time in four years, the reassuring ritual of Tony plodding down the driveway in his half-open bathrobe to retrieve the paper at the start of each episode is missing. No Tony, just the empty driveway, the paper, the silent house -- until a car comes into the frame and crushes the paper under its wheels.
It's Meadow (Jamie-Lynn DiScala), car radio blaring, coming to pick up her brother, A.J. (Robert Iler), for another ritual -- the family's Sunday dinner. That they are driving lets us know there's been another big change: the weekly dinner is no longer at the Soprano house. It looks like Mom and Dad are not back together.
So much new information is given, so many chords of memory are tapped for die-hard Sopranos viewers -- and not a word of dialogue is spoken for nearly a minute and a half until Meadow honks the horn and calls to her brother.
The series started in 1999 in the back yard with Tony responding at some deep and primitive level to a family of ducks that had taken up residence in the pool. When the ducks flew off for good, Tony suffered his first panic attack, and American television viewers saw their first Mafia boss go into therapy and onto Prozac.
Tonight's opening backyard images -- like T.S. Eliot's objective correlative -- viscerally and instantly reconnect viewers to that beginning, the source of the rich narrative currents that drive this family saga. And, yet, there is all the new detail about the shattered state of the Soprano clan. This is TV storytelling done as well as it has ever been done.
Carmela is living in the huge, empty house with only an increasingly abusive A.J. for company -- until a big black bear starts making late-night visits to the back yard. It is another intrusion by nature into the Soprano household -- just like the arrival and departure of the ducks in the pilot. More doubling-back to the beginning of the series, and more than enough symbolism even for aging Hemingway or Faulkner scholars in search of new bears to critique.
Tony, meanwhile, is living in the home of his dead mother, and while he is having sex with the kind of trashy woman to whom he usually turns for physical gratification, he's imagining Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), his former psychiatrist. Could it get more Freudian?
Tony starts to obsess about dating Melfi after seeing a scene on late-night TV from the 1991 film The Prince of Tides (featuring Nick Nolte as a patient in therapy with a psychiatrist played by Barbra Streisand). Tony smiles like a schoolboy as he watches a scene between Nolte and Steisand play out. It is one of those wonderful Sopranos moments of pop culture synchronicity between the screens we and Tony are simultaneously watching.
Late-night TV and casual sex are more or less the only pleasures Tony finds in the first four episodes made available for preview. Otherwise, his life is one of mounting tension, as an undercover federal agent burrows deeper into the Soprano crime family, Tony becomes more alienated from Carmela, and two former members of the mob get out of prison and come looking for help. Oh, yes, and then there's Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), the man with whom Tony shares leadership of the crime family, starting to show serious signs of dementia.
David Chase, the executive producer and auteur of The Sopranos, has all the great themes of the series up and running by the end of the first hour.
* Masculinity: No television series explores the question of what it means to be male like The Sopranos.
"It's so nice to have a man around the house," Carmela sarcastically sings to A.J. after her college-age son balks at doing a night-time chore for her in the back yard.
"You should have thought about that before ...," A.J. replies just as sarcastically. But a few seconds later, he is in the back yard and crying like a baby for his mom when he finds himself face to face with the bear.
When Tony hears about the bear a few days later, he responds with a shotgun and a late-night, backyard stakeout. It's Tony measuring his manhood against nature.