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'Sopranos’ Return Raises Questions

3/10/2006 7:00 PM Eastern

We’ve always been told that revenge is best served cold. Well, with the opening installment of the penultimate season of Home Box Office’s The Sopranos, viewers learn it also can be quite tasty when sprinkled with dementia, too. Or was that Junior’s (Dominic Chianese) spice of choice for his nephew?

With a hole in his stomach, questions came pouring out like Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) blood as he desperately crawled for 911 help. Concerns about the big guy’s future — and those of his two families — set in motion some of the richest episodes of this series to date.

While one story line is a bit overdrawn — if Tony’s life was so mundane, we wouldn’t have tuned in all these years — the characters’ reactions drive the other three episodes HBO has made available for review.

Among the notable: the continued immaturity and search for self by son A.J. (Robert Iler). But the kid’s pledge could still make his pop proud.

Her grief and guilt aside, wife Carmela (Edie Falco) becomes a lightning rod to the changing loyalties and fortunes among some of the family’s business members.

With all due respect, consigliere Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt) learns that it’s tough being No. 1. Hot-headed Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) finds several reasons to get frenetic, while a bloodline quandary dislodges his place in the world.

In a case of less is more, the half-size version of Vito Spatafore (Joe Gannascoli) has evidently transformed a soldier into a much larger player. As Carmella warns, watch your back with this one.

Christopher uses wise-guy one-liners to get along without his whacked Adriana, while revisiting his penchant for screenwriting to hilarious effect.

But a gravity pervades, foreshadowing Sundays without a bigger than life character, something that millions of viewers, the actors, creator David Chase and HBO executives will have to come to grips with when the series wraps early next year.

In the meantime, HBO can expect strong Nielsen numbers. Just maybe not as big as when the series last aired fresh episodes in June 2004: the fifth-season premieres averaged 9.8 million viewers. Since then, ABC’s Desperate Housewives, averaging 25 million plus this season, has taken root in the 9 p.m. time slot. The wider availability of digital video recorders and the expansion of HBO on Demand to about 10 million homes from 4 million in 2004 should also hurt the mob series’ debuts. Still, the quality and cliffhanger nature of these early episodes should keep The Sopranos humming — with cumulative numbers coming within 1 million of the fifth season’s 14.4 million average.

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