- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

The “Sex and the City” girls are done, and now Sunday night belongs, again, to the boys. Specifically Tony Soprano and his lovable crew down at the Bada-Bing, right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

HBO’s testosterone-fueled masterpiece, “The Sopranos,” returns this weekend after a 15-month layover, and the show’s millions of fans — overwhelmingly male, for the record — are no doubt looking forward to seeing their hero, New Jersey gang boss Tony Soprano, back in action.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if Tony and the boys are overshadowed this season by head writer and show creator David Chase’s growing fascination with the midlife crisis facing Carmela, Tony’s long-suffering wife, played by Edie Falco.

When we saw her last, Carmela was telling her mobster husband that the marriage was over. Stunning in its sheer power and brutal honesty, it was a gut-wrenching scene that landed Emmys for both Miss Falco and James Gandolfini, the charismatic actor behind Tony.

The Soprano marriage — the marriage that Mr. Chase has said was the real reason he wanted to write the show in the first place — seemed to come physically undone with every word, every sob, every angry stab of Miss Falco’s finger.

Their final domestic blowout was as good as television drama gets.

Mr. Chase, a longtime small-screen crime writer before striking gold with his mob melodrama, has also said he co-opted the mobster milieu so he could sell the series to a network.

Nobody, he figured, would tune in to a show that peeled back the layers, one-by-one, on the dissolution of an American marriage.

So he mixed in a little gang warfare here, a few strippers there, and bada-bing, bada-bang. Now you’ve got the 18-to-40 male demographic tuning in.

After exploring Tony Soprano’s twisted relationship with his mother in the first season, Mr. Chase and his talented crew of writers moved on to the other relationships in the gang boss’s life. Brother of Janice. Father of Meadow and A.J. Then, last season, finally: husband.

There are some new plot twists planned for this season. Oddball actor Steve Buscemi of “Fargo” and “Reservoir Dogs” fame, among many others, joins the cast as Tony’s cousin.

Mr. Buscemi has already worked with the “Sopranos” crew behind the lens: He was the director of the third season’s memorable Point Barrens episode, in which Christopher Moldisanti and his psychopathic mentor, Paulie Walnuts, botch a hit and get lost in the woods of southern New Jersey.

The episode, with its banal dialogue and bungling bad guys, plays out like a clever homage to, surprise, “Fargo,” and is acknowledged by online “Sopranos” fans as one of the series’ best. How the quirky actor’s on-screen presence will play against Mr. Gandolfini’s larger-than-life Tony remains to be scene.

What is evident after four seasons is Mr. Chase’s ambivalence toward his creation.

Mr. Chase, who plans to end the series next year after one more season, has always seemed a little uncomfortable with the devotion — even admiration — some fans have for Tony and his gang of killers.

As the show begins to wind down, I think Mr. Chase will have to resolve some of the open-ended moral quandaries that have percolated through all the episodes.

Mr. Chase is fascinated by the corrupted morality that frames the world of the mobsters, but in the end, he can’t let us go away thinking these guys are heroes.

In the end, Mr. Chase believes in doing the right thing, as he proved last season with Carmela, who finally realized that living with Tony meant she was complicit in his crimes. And again two seasons ago, when Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) kept her rape to herself because she knew her gang-lord client would have her assailant killed.

Where else can it go? Tony wins back Carmela and suddenly “The Sopranos” becomes a romantic comedy?

No, Tony has to lose Carmela. And probably the children, too. And Christopher and who knows what else. If not this season, then next. Like Michael Corleone at the end of “The Godfather Part II,” Tony will have to pay with those he loves for becoming the man he is.

So, “Sopranos” fans, if you’re looking forward to another season of Tony outfoxing his rivals and bamboozling the ever-forgiving Carmela … you might have to fuhgeddaboutit.

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