Mar 1, 2004  •  Post A Comment

“The Sopranos” teaches us many things: That it’s bad to lose your temper and kill somebody. That food is life, and though carbs may be fattening and in disrepute right now, they are also delicious. And that where the federal government is involved, paranoia is the best policy, and not just if you’re a crook, either.
What “Sopranos” fans have learned most of all is patience. The last new episode aired on HBO 15 months ago. On Sunday, “The Sopranos” will finally be back with 13 new shows. Creator-producer David Chase plans 10 more after that, but they haven’t been written yet, and HBO can only say it is hoped they will turn up sometime in 2005.
Chase, in Washington last week for a press screening of the first two new episodes at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association headquarters, shrugs off complaints that it’s too long between “Sopranos” appearances. “People wait two or three years for a sequel to a movie,” he said. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”
It’s his prerogative. He’s given television one of its milestone shows, and cable its best drama series ever, so let’s not argue with his judgment or his work habits. The strange thing is, even though it may seem like forever since that last new episode-when the marriage of Tony and Carmela Soprano crashed against the rocks-once you start watching, it’s as if “The Sopranos” never went away.
You’re pulled right in again; the characters and their quirks are instantly familiar. There’s appointment TV and must-see TV; “Sopranos” is, though it hardly sounds flattering, quicksand TV. I watched four episodes in one day and then was cranky HBO hadn’t sent more.
It’s a case, too, where critics and public agree-a good example to refute the notion that critics are out of touch and only like snooty-fruity fare adapted from 18th-century novels. “Sopranos” must be HBO’s best-reviewed series and its most-watched, averaging 11 million viewers. When “Sex and the City” said goodbye recently, in an episode that received torrents of hype, it pulled in its highest audience ever: 10.6 million viewers.
Normally “Sex” attracted about 6 million, which is very gratifying to HBO. But “Sopranos” is in a league of its own in terms of appeal as well as quality.
Chase said that one of the hardest things about writing “Sopranos” episodes is that “these people don’t do anything,” by which he meant they don’t travel, read or go to the movies or other things that characters normally do, so it’s hard to keep them busy while the narrative marches on. Two things they do in abundance are eat and watch television. In some episodes, nearly every other scene is set around a table full of food-a restaurant, a dining room, a country club terrace, a kitchen.
More unusual is that we actually see people watching TV, like people do in real life. They watch old movies, reruns of “The Honeymooners,” nature documentaries about furry, burrowing little creatures and the news. They’re particularly riveted in the season premiere to a TV station’s report on a whole gaggle of gangsters sent to the slammer in the 1980s who are now being let out-a major catalyst for new story arcs.
It’s doubtful “The Sopranos” will be held up as an offending culprit in the current uproar over sex and violence on TV and radio, even though there are extremes of both sex and violence in the series. The show’s so good that even a congressman or an FCC commissioner can probably detect that the sex and violence are wholly justifiable within the milieu depicted.
And violence is handled in a way that gives it greater impact than it usually has on TV, without celebrating it the way modern-day crime shows and action movies do. It’s deglamorized to the point, often, of true tragedy. Remember when NBC’s Bob Wright, normally an outwardly sensible executive, foamed himself into a lather about violence in “The Sopranos” and sent out copies of an allegedly offending episode? He didn’t get much sympathy or support.
Anybody in a management position at a network that airs “Fear Factor” really has no business ever complaining about somebody else’s alleged offenses anyway.
The commercial genius of “Sopranos” is that in concept it would appear to be a show with strong male appeal and of little interest to women. But by emphasizing Tony’s home life, his wife’s liberation and his relationship with his female shrink, Chase broadened the constituency (basically to include everybody). This season, with Tony’s family already tearing asunder, his underworld empire is also splitting at the seams. He is a fascinating character, one moment to be reviled, the next to be pitied, occasionally even to be envied.
Admit it: There is a profane allure to the idea that if some moron cuts you off in traffic or rams your rear end and then drives away, you could have him killed.
James Gandolfini and Edie Falco have by now so assimilated their characters that it never seems like “acting,” though, of course, it’s great acting. Among the terrific additions this season are Robert Loggia for about four episodes as one of the old geezers let out of prison, and Steve Buscemi, in a hilarious white suit, as a younger one. Taking the first four episodes as a reliable indicator, this is not going to be one of those seasons when people run around saying, “Gee, `The Sopranos’ doesn’t seem as good as it used to be.”
It seems even better than it used to be. And of how many things on television, or anywhere else, can that be said?