'The Sopranos' returns with customary brilliance

Friday, September 13, 2002

NEW YORK-- "The Sopranos" returns for its fourth season with customary brilliance. Also, vivid foresight.

Filmed almost a year ago, back when corporate executives, not mobsters, were still thought to occupy the higher moral ground, the season opener (on HBO Sunday at 8 p.m. EDT) perfectly captures the new public mood: No one is above suspicion. And everyone, other than corrupt CEOs, is feeling a money crunch.

Neither mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) nor anyone around him can stop poor-mouthing.

Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) rags on Tony about the cost of his upcoming RICO trial and calls for financial assistance, to which Tony replies: "I got cash-flow problems of my own. I got two kids in private schools."

Tony upbraids his key earners for slacking off, telling them, "Frankly, I'm depressed and ashamed." He explodes when he sees a Bada Bing! bartender dumping partly melted ice. "Conserve!" he snaps, after clobbering the guy with an ice bucket.

Wife Carmela (Edie Falco) wants to consult a financial planner, explaining, "I'm worried about me and the kids if something happens to you."

Even the crooked police detective whacked by Christopher for killing his father is hard-up. To his disgust, Christopher (Michael Imperioli) finds one 20-dollar bill in the dead man's wallet.

Meanwhile, Christopher's fiancee, Adriana (Drea de Matteo), has a new gal pal: an undercover FBI agent. Tony's daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), is devastated by the murder of Jackie Jr. -- and is beginning to confront the unthinkable: Her own father might have ordered the hit.

In short, both families Tony heads seem on the verge of coming apart. Violently.

Can Tony save his way of life? Can Tony even save his life?

"There's two endings for a guy like me, a high-profile guy," he gloomily tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). "Dead, or in the can."

Of course, Tony being Tony, he then advances a third option, laying out this plan in far more detail than Melfi is comfortable hearing.

"Anthony," she cringes, "why are you telling me this?"

"I don't know," Tony stammers. "I guess I trust you."

After 16 months, the return of "The Sopranos" is the fall TV season's biggest event.

But despite the inevitable question -- is it still great? -- the series' uniqueness makes a folly of reviewing this or any single episode. Such an exercise, however compulsory, may be no more useful than reviewing a single chapter of a novel -- before the novel has been read to the end.

Only after this season's 13 episodes, plus another 13 in its fifth (presumably final) season, will a properly informed appraisal be possible.

That said, have no fear.

Sunday's "Chapter" 40, titled "For All Debts Public and Private," is utterly absorbing. For the characters, who were once so deft at cheating fate (and everything else) while flaunting their paisan camaraderie, a dreadful finish now seems all but certain. What it will be, and how it can be averted for another two years, are where the drama lies -- and the suspense.

This season's premiere is just more proof: If "The Sopranos" were a novel, no one could put it down.

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