The family guise

Times Staff Writer

“THE SOPRANOS,” hype-wise, is like “Harry Potter” for adults; no other series in the history of American television has unfolded quite like it, or caused quite the same paroxysms of expectation. I speak as somebody who found the DVD of four new episodes on his front porch one morning last week and immediately brought it inside with quivering hands, as if holding an abandoned infant, making a pledge to tell no one.

It’s silly, this feeling of involvement. “The Sopranos” is just a TV show (or just a Not TV show, in HBO-speak), but in the words of director Mike Figgis, who did DVD commentary for an earlier episode he directed: I have been dreaming these characters.

It is in this way that “The Sopranos” is enduring fiction. In the other way it’s just, if you like, a black comedy about a new-moneyed, suburban New Jersey mob boss with family problems -- the one at home and the one at work, at the strip club he owns, the Bada Bing. The thing about “The Sopranos” is that strands of character detail -- Carmela Soprano’s fingernails, the way Tony breathes through his nose when he eats -- stay with you long after you’ve forgotten whose cut of a garbage route has precipitated a beef between which wiseguys.

But given that it’s been gone so long -- “last season” was two years ago -- and in the spirit of a Mafia family letter at the holidays, here are some news and notes: I’m pleased to report that Tony is doing fine after almost getting arrested at mobster Johnny Sack’s house and fleeing the feds through the wintry backwoods of his suburb (Johnny, unfortunately, is now wearing prison orange and thanks you in advance for your cards and wishes). Carmela and Tony have patched up their marital difficulties after a trial separation due to Tony’s repeated philandering. Tony even bought Carm a new Porsche Cayenne (turbo, 4.5-liter V8)! A.J. has started junior college, and Meadow has blossomed into a beautiful young woman; she plans either to become a doctor or lawyer.


But it’s not all good news; I’m sorry to report that Tony’s cousin Tony Blundetto remains dead due to the fact that Tony shot him in the face, though T.S. remains confident that his cousin would have preferred being clipped to being tortured and then clipped for whacking Phil Leotardo’s kid brother. Also on the still-dead front is Adriana, ex-fiancee of Tony’s nephew, Christopher Moltisanti. Adriana, whom we will miss dearly, had the misfortune of becoming an FBI informant, and you know the Soprano family policy on this. She was last seen crawling through the woods, awaiting a bullet to the back of the head by Tony’s right-hand man Silvio. On a more upbeat note, Carmela has set down the foundation on the new family spec home she’s building! It’s the same left off the highway Sil took to whack Adriana.

With all this, the first line of dialogue in the new season is: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” It’s a throwaway line, two FBI agents in a car talking. Soon, one of them is vomiting, the result of a parasite he picked up in Pakistan, working the terrorism beat.

It’s a small scene, but it’s emblematic of the way series creator David Chase uses his storytelling head-start -- the culture’s inherent fascination with organized crime figures -- to comment on a wide swath of 21st century concerns. “The Sopranos” is full of passing laments on real-life topics that other TV series, locked into their conceits, either don’t have their characters observe or have them observe too stridently, in very special episodes. 9/11 is one of them (Tony Soprano’s way of life endures, it is suggested, in part because FBI resources are focused on a larger threat), but so is immigrant-on-immigrant racism and HMO bureaucracy and identity theft and Hurricane Katrina and the movie “Saw,” this last giving Christopher (Michael Imperioli) an idea for a mob-themed slasher film.

The show, in this way, can seem to be about everything -- a modern-day pastiche juxtaposing the mundane with the grandiose, the topical with the primal. And yet, at its heart, it’s mostly about self-deception.

Chase starts this season in montage, reacquainting us with his characters through an extended sequence set to one of his bohemian music choices. In this case it’s “Seven Souls,” a steeped-in-the-Egyptians, spoken-word piece by Beat Generation icon William S. Burroughs, reading an excerpt from his novel “The Western Lands” to a funk-jazz musical arrangement recorded by bassist Bill Laswell and his band Material (OK, I had to look it up).

As Burroughs croaks about ancient Egyptian mythology and the seven souls of man, about he who “directs the film of your life from conception to death,” we get a corresponding Soprano family slide show: Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro) stares at the infant nursing from her tattooed breast while her husband Bobby Baccalieri (Steve R. Schirripa) loses himself in model trains; a mobster poses for a weight-loss program while another mobster-turned-informant walks on his treadmill, President Bush on the TV. Adriana appears to Carmela (Edie Falco) in a dream, the two of them standing in the skeleton of the spec house. The kids are seen in character repose -- son A.J. still a miscreant, but with longer hair, sitting in the back row and taking pictures of his tongue with his cellphone, while older sister Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) does a striptease for her fiance Finn.

The opening foreshadows the ultra-symbolic, dreamily dark terrain that “The Sopranos” will cover in this, its sixth season (eight additional episodes will air in 2007). In therapy with his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), Tony describes being stopped at an intersection and seeing a nanny pushing a baby carriage going one way and a nurse pushing an old woman in a wheelchair in the opposite direction.

“The circle of life,” Melfi observes.

“Circle jerk of life,” Tony says.

Sunday night’s debut ends in stunning fashion, by which time Chase has established this autumnal tone, heaping on the circle-jerk-of-life symbolism. As Tony, Gandolfini is more lumbering, more palpably wearing his fatigue, Tony’s lusts and aggression channeled into a sushi place at which he and Carmela graze. “I don’t know about you, but ever since we found this place I catch myself fantasizing about this,” Carmela says. “Me too,” says Tony. “Sometimes during sex.”

They have never seemed so ordinary.

She tells Tony about her Adriana nightmare and wonders about her whereabouts. “The Sopranos” will no doubt bury more bodies this year, but unlike past seasons, there so far is no wiseguy getting out of jail and jockeying for position in the family.

“The Sopranos” this season seems poised to return to Tony, to begin to resolve, in some ultimate way, his inner and outer worlds.

It all began with him in midlife crisis, strangely moved by ducks in his pool. They were migrating south for the winter. Now it’s Tony staring at the winter of his life. It’s “The Year of the Rat,” and one of Tony’s lieutenants wants to go the way of the ducks and retire to Florida. “What’you, a hockey player?” Tony says, smiling, and you know, right there, that this will end badly.

All along, self-deception has been one of Chase’s resonant themes, shot through nearly every major character. In building Tony Soprano into a cult antihero, Chase combined self-deception with the psychoanalytic (it feels like the one un-contemporary story choice, Melfi’s Freudian tendencies).

This was the main selling point of “The Sopranos” when it debuted in 1999 -- mob boss meets therapist, reveals vulnerabilities. If it seemed like a trend (“Analyze This” came out around the same time), “The Sopranos” has burrowed much deeper into the nature of the therapy relationship. Tony’s stasis (crushing family obligation mixed with unresolved childhood mixed with guttural grabbing of earthly pleasures) is at the show’s narrative heart.

Sunday’s musical sequence ends with Tony and his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) digging up what Junior, in his increasingly Alzheimer’s-addled state, thinks is his cut of an old mob deal buried in his backyard. And there is Tony in his loafers digging, having a nonsense conversation with his feeble relative.

This is pretty much where Chase began his story, Tony trying to get his gruesomely overbearing mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) into a nursing home against her will and suffering panic attacks as a result of that and other life stresses (including the minor development that Livia had put out a hit on him). Only now it’s Tony, encouraged by his sister to put Junior away, who insists nursing homes are deathtraps, unable to bear that same guilt trip again.

” ... you still, after all this time, cannot accept you had a mother who didn’t love you,” Melfi tells him.

The plot turn at the end of Sunday’s episode precipitates a reckoning, which Chase and his writers render in a multi-episode, bathed-in-metaphor dream sequence. In “Sopranos” dream land, limbo is some identity-less, Costa Mesa office park sort of place, your wallet and briefcase mysteriously not yours, your hotel elevator broken, a stuffed animal sitting in a chair.

“Please bear with us,” the sign on its chest reads.

It’s a stunning construct, producing the best work from Gandolfini and the equally formidable Falco since, well, since the last time we saw them.


‘The Sopranos’

Where: HBO

When: 9 to 10 p.m. Sunday

Ratings: TV-MA (unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for violence and coarse language)