The “Sopranos’ ” relationship with its audience is a complex balancing act, with highs and lows sandwiched between long stretches of time.
The question posed by Sunday’s final season premiere of David Chase’s acclaimed mob drama is whether it can sustain the interest of loyal fans after a yearlong hiatus.
The answer? Yes — with the qualification that a little patience will be needed.
When the end of HBO’s tent pole series was announced more than two years ago, producers decided to divide the sixth and final season’s 21 episodes into two parts. The first 12 ran from last March through June. The remaining nine — which will wrap June 3, in time for most of the new episodes to qualify for Emmy consideration — begin with a slow boil in Sunday’s opener, titled “Soprano Home Movies,” at 9 p.m.
The story doesn’t quite pick up where we last left off.
It begins with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) receiving the rudest of awakenings when police arrest him at home in the wee hours before dawn. With the neighbors looking on, he’s led away in handcuffs, leaving his long-suffering wife Carmela (Edie Falco) to inform family members and marshal the troops.
It’s not what you think. The portly crime boss — who, by the way, is still being tailed by the feds — is thrown into the pokey on a weapons charge. Through a flashback from the show’s eventful fifth season, we are reminded that Tony hastily tossed the gun (filled with expanding hollow point bullets) in the snow as FBI agents abruptly ended his talk with New York syndicate head Johnny “Sack” Sacramoni (Vincent Curatola). Johnny is arrested, and Tony flees the scene. However, we learn, a teenager had witnessed the entire incident, retrieved the weapon and gone on a petty crime spree.
Tony beats the rap, and the charges are dropped (thank goodness) in time for his 47th birthday celebration at an upstate New York estate owned by his sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and her husband, mob enforcer Bobby “Bacala” Baccaleri (Steven R. Schirripa).
Director Tim Van Patten revels in endless scenes of family bonding and domestic bliss at the tranquil lakeside retreat. Time passes s-l-o-w-l-y as we await the inevitable sparks.
The action finally comes amid a masterful scene as the adults — Tony, Bobby, Janice and Carmela — play Monopoly, delight in Karaoke and down way too much booze. Tempers flare, fisticuffs erupt (though it’s not the usual bloodbath that’s been the show’s trademark) and Bobby knocks Tony out — a fleeting victory that will exact a heavy price.
The momentum escalates a bit by the season’s second episode (“Stage 5,” premiering April 15) when more familiar faces and story lines return. Tony’s nephew Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) has finally achieved his goal of becoming a screenwriter/movie producer. He also has a wife and new baby but still hasn’t given up his bad-boy ways.
Meanwhile, the bad news gets increasingly worse for the imprisoned Johnny Sack. There will be two deaths, and Tony will continue his psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). The episode is also packed with celebrity guests, including appearances by Daniel Baldwin, Geraldo Rivera (as himself) — and a surprising turn by director Sydney Pollack as a seemingly compassionate hospital orderly.
Long-simmering issues resurface when Carmela quizzes Christopher about Adriana’s (Drea de Matteo) “disappearance” (“She left me for another guy. What more can I say?” he replies), and Tony’s doubts about some of his most trusted allies will continue to fester.
In true David Chase fashion, of course, it’s all certain to be the quiet before the storm.
Who else will die? (My money’s on the hotheaded Christopher and the temperamental Artie Bucco, played by John Ventimiglia, for starters.)
Is there already a mole in Tony’s crew? Will Carmela turn on Tony, and, most important, will he get whacked — before the season ends? This is HBO, after all, and there are no guarantees. (You will recall that two years ago the network chose to snuff out its main character in “Six Feet Under” three weeks before the series finale.)
So fasten your seat belts. Hopefully, we’re in for a bumpy ride.