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They Keep Pulling Us Back In

Cable companies know a colossus when they have one.

You open the front door, and hanging on the knob is a multicolor glossy from Adelphia Digital Cable announcing the return of the best series on television. To make that point, glowering at you from the ad is a photo of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, looking mean enough to eat the mat.

No wonder the Joisey mob of “The Sopranos” has little chance of ever swiping a best series Emmy from the feel-good White House of “The West Wing,” whose high-minded President Bartlet would never pardon Marc Rich.

Positive buzz for NBC’s beloved, charismatic “The West Wing” is just too great, having crescendoed to a roar that assures omnipotence with Emmy voters. That’s true even though most of the show’s characters gab at high speed with the same voice, and either Josh or his sound-alike blond assistant has got to be a ventriloquist.

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This is a minor rap, for if all prime time matched the high IQ and superior acting of “The West Wing,” TV’s wattage would brighten perceptively. Arranging these pedestals in order, however, “The Sopranos” remains the elitist of the elite.

Emmys, Shmemmys. This HBO series from David Chase will always stand as evidence of just how high U.S. television can soar.

Stratospherically, says this third season of “The Sopranos.” It opens grandly Sunday with a back-to-back pair of Chase-written episodes that mingle seething and quietly hilarious parody in brilliantly subtle ways.

Competing against its shimmery self, and the lofty expectations it creates, “The Sopranos” resurfaces once more as a superbly written and executed hybrid of popular entertainment and high art, offering up its own Golden Age of TV.

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That first episode, with Feds tailing and spying on the Sopranos while launching a complex scheme to wiretap their home, is droll spoofery all the way to the closing credits. At several points, that includes a background track of “Every Breath You Take” with Sting singing:

Every move you make,

Every step you take,

I’ll be watching you.

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Certainly the Feds are watching from under cover, then breaking into “the sausage factory,” as they call this swanky suburban house, when the family and their Polish housekeeper are out for the day. And with Tony’s Bada Bing nudie club in mind, they give the Sopranos these code names: Der Bingle for Tony, Mrs. Bing for Carmela (Edie Falco), Princess Bing for their daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), and Little Bing for their son, Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler).

Slipped in conversationally, as always, are terribly funny little throwaways. Such as “Carm’s” hunky tennis coach asking her for letters of recommendation for his coming move to the West Coast, the irony of a Mafia wife giving job referrals sliding by without a pause.

The second episode, dealing with the finality of Livia Soprano’s death, finds those dutifully gathering to pay their respects being prodded by Tony’s sister, Janice (Aida Turturro), into eulogizing her mother as the admired matriarch she wasn’t. Put on the spot while gobbling cheese puffs, they fidget nervously and struggle mightily to find something positive to say about Livia, their hollow praise speaking laughably for itself. As does a funeral bouquet from the FBI.

“The Sopranos” never softens crime or glamorizes lawbreakers. Instead, these pit stops for sly humor are meant to connect us to the lives of the show’s criminals and their families who, despite their obvious defects, in some ways are bound and defined by the same mundane conventions as the rest of society. The common denominators flow effortlessly.

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As when FBI agents comment on surveillance footage of the Soprano basement they’re trying to bug. “A hundred-twenty gallon water heater,” notes an envious fed. “At my house, we get about a shower and a half,” laments another.

In fact, the water heater becomes pivotal in a way that amusingly links this crime boss to his government pursuers and other ordinary homeowners.

Despite this lighter tone, “The Sopranos” is ultimately no comedy, of course, its volcanic anger and violence ever promising to blow like Vesuvius. As noted by Tony’s top lieutenant, Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), clipping a guy is always “the option.”

In the new season’s third episode, moreover, we flash back to a young Tony watching his mobster dad hack off the pinkie of someone owing him money. And a few episodes later, someone is savagely beaten by Ralph Cifaretto (new cast member Joe Pantoliano), successor to departed Richie Aprile as the mob family’s hottest head.

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Ever-conflicted Tony is deeply affected by the death of his witch of a mother, feeling guilt for wishing her dead. Though calmed by watching Jimmy Cagney gangster flicks, he’s having more panic attacks and growing impatient with his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). “Enough money in your pocket. What’s the story here?”

The story with Meadow is college and her African American Jewish boyfriend (Patrick Tully), who brings out the ugly redneck in her father. Tony’s volatile thug of a nephew, Christopher (Michael Imperioli), finds life as a “made man,” and the burden of diverting six “large” a week to Paulie, more challenging than he anticipated. Janice is back in town and treacherous as ever while clashing with the Russian Svetlana (Alla Kliouka), Livia’s one-legged former caregiver whose existence here, however fleeting, epitomizes the originality of this series.

And Nancy Marchand, who died last year, returns briefly as Livia.

Well, sort of, if you count having her voice inserted and image weirdly digitalized into a few early scenes as if Livia were arguing with Tony shortly before her death. Nice try, but she looks almost like a hologram.

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And how realistic is it, by the way, that a Mafia boss as powerful as Tony would have security so lax that FBI agents disguised as workmen could get inside his house without detection? The Corleones would never allow it.

Nor the likes of one of Tony’s main mugs, Silvio Dante (rocker Steven Van Zandt), ever the cartoon figure right out of Dick Tracy with his frozen frown and rubber foam hair, and no more credible than Flattop or Big Boy Caprice.

Just what he’s doing here has always been a mystery, especially as characters around him, from Tony to Carmela to coke-snorting Christopher, appear so seamlessly authentic that you have no sense of actors working from written lines.

It’s their moral ambiguity that most grounds them in reality and makes them so fascinating that missing even one episode is unthinkable. Every move they make, every step they take, we’ll be watching them.

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* “The Sopranos” can be seen Sunday nights at 9 on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17).

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Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted by e-mail at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.

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