Dark and moody as ever, HBO's The Sopranos returns for the start of a long swan song, and fans won't be disappointed. They will be startled by some plot turns, amused by dark humor in others, and averting their eyes at a few more. That all adds up to a new season that maintains the quality viewers have come to expect.
The first minutes of the season premiere at 9 tonight are apt to confuse casual viewers but will delight obsessive, detail-devouring super-fans. The almost-two-year hiatus since the last season of The Sopranos left me groping to recall the complex web of characters and relationships, but gradually the episode offered a feeling of comfort just in time for unforeseeable events to upset the routine.
Creator David Chase and his writing staff instill the first four episodes with questions of mortality and identity ("Who am I? Where am I going?" Tony asks). With Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) in prison, Tony (James Gandolfini) ponders his own possible future, fearing for snitches in this "year of the rat."
"I don't care how close you are," Tony tells son A.J. (Robert Iler). "In the end, your friends are gonna let you down. Family, they're the ones you can depend on."
The Sopranos can also count on family to cause trouble. A.J. continues his adventures in juvenile delinquency. Carmela (Edie Falco) fumes when her father uses cheap lumber that doesn't pass inspection in the spec house she's building.
Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) has his own family struggle - and gives Tony heart palpitations - while Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt) is among the characters facing health issues when his asthma acts up. But gay and closeted mobster Vito Spatafore (Joe Gannascoli) takes great pride in slimming down, buying new clothes and leading Tony to consider his own need for weight loss.
All the performers are again in top form, and Gandolfini, in particular, shows a broader range. Falco shines in Carmela's bleakest moments, especially in a scene where she finally acknowledges the lies she's told herself about Tony's profession and how their children now recognize his business for what it is.
Carmela remembers an early date with Tony, when he brought her father a power drill, proof that she was dating a wiseguy.
"I don't know if I loved Tony in spite of it or because of it. ... And I know behind that power drill was a guy with a broken arm or worse," she says. "I'd go to my priest and cry about it, but that was ... there are far bigger crooks than my husband. But the kids, they don't get to decide who they're born to."
This attention to detail, in language and in character, continues to make The Sopranos a landmark achievement.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is TV editor of the Post-Gazette.