- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

Anticipation will reach fever pitch among “Sopranos” fans this weekend. Will their favorite mob drama, returning to the Sunday schedule, reclaim its glory nearly two years after the last original episode aired?

For HBO, the stakes could hardly be higher.

With “Sex and the City” and “Six Feet Under” retired, the pay channel needs large and in charge Tony Soprano to anchor its uneven lineup of original programming.

It’s been at least a year in “Sopranos” time since last we saw Tony (James Gandolfini), and the hirsute mob boss appears relatively at peace. His marriage to Carmela (Edie Falco) feels reborn, business is bada-booming, and since longtime mob rival Johnny “Sack” Sacramoni (Vincent Curatola) remains behind bars, he wields the upper hand on turf squabbles.

Better yet, two FBI informants check out before the first episode wraps.

Tony has even traded in linguini for sushi, although his Buddha belly suggests otherwise.

The first sign of trouble surfaces when a longtime mob captain inherits $2 million and asks Tony if he could retire to Florida. This is one business without a retirement policy that doesn’t involve a tombstone.

Meanwhile, Tony is forced to watch over an increasingly senile Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) with little help from sister Janice (Aida Turturro) or her cuckolded husband.

By “Sopranos” standards, it’s all quiet on the Jersey shore front.

The bang that shatters the peace is seismic and won’t be revealed here, but suffice to say the next three episodes hinge on the fallout. And there’s the rub, and it’s a disappointing one for “Sopranos” faithful. The twist leads to the kind of maudlin soliloquies that bring jumping sharks to mind.

Judging from an apparently gratuitous quasi-dream sequence, it looks like maybe series creator David Chase’s success has won him such deference that there’s nobody left around him with the nerve to tell him no.

The extended Sopranos family is supposed to be bound together by honor and loyalty, but so often their selfish behavior betrays that code. It’s a tension that runs through the series’ best moments, and Mr. Chase hasn’t lost his ability to keep that theme fresh.

In the Sopranos’ world, it’s the violence that’s the greater truth, and viewers can expect a few spasms of bloodletting in the early part of the 12-episode run.

For every “Sopranos” bit that remains sharp, like the black comedy spilling from the likes of Uncle Paulie (Tony Sirico) and Sylvio (Steve Van Zandt), there’s an element we wish would just go away — such as eternal misfit A.J. (Robert Iler). The youngest Soprano’s one-dimensional pouting is beyond irritating.

The series will likely recover from its early misstep, and we get the sense that the soul-searching Tony began with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) will reveal plenty as the season marches on.

WHAT:# “The Sopranos”

WHEN:# Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

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