This week, HBO's The Sopranos pulls off a corker of a season ender, even as Fox's Futurama the first new project from cartoonist Matt Groening since The Simpsons achieves a terrific blastoff.
''You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do'' is the ominous motto for Futurama's America in the year 3000, as 1999 pizza-delivery boy Fry (voiced by Ren & Stimpy's Billy West) discovers when he cryogenically defrosts in the future. He befriends a grouchy, beer-guzzling robot, Bender (John DiMaggio), and a one-eyed alien female, Leela (Married...With Children's Katey Sagal), and with them, he explores a sleek but still-screwed-up country in which the citizenry are implanted with ''career chips'' that define the rest of their lives. While the Simpsons-esque animation is eye-poppingly cheerful, the message Groening is sending out is subversively bleak. (Instead of phones on the corner, there are ''suicide booths,'' in which you can off yourself for a quarter.)
Groening, deeply influenced by the paranoid fantasies of writer Philip K. Dick, the dystopian surrealism of the Firesign Theatre, and every cornball sci-fi movie, creates an airy atmosphere ripe for satirizing our love of computer technology. Fry is like a post-adolescent Bart Simpson, his anarchic tendencies a little worn down, but still plucky. All this, plus jabs at Richard Nixon and a police force armed with Star Wars-style lightsabers with which to pummel the public ahh, it's too bad sci-fi fan Stanley Kubrick didn't live to see Groening's gloriously vibrant deconstruction of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Bruce Springsteen croons the chorus of ''State Trooper'' at the end of this week's finale of the wickedly funny, piercingly insightful Sopranos. The singer's plea ''Please don't stop me'' has become the motto of the series' chief protagonist, New Jersey Mob captain Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini in what is likely to remain the dramatic performance of the year. Like the Boss, Sopranos creator David Chase has an abiding sympathy for workaday people and deploys their simple, direct language and actions to summon up truths about family, trust, and honor. In Tony's case, he doesn't want to be stopped by any number of things: by the government agents tailing him, by the middle-class constraints of his wife (Oz's Edie Falco) and kids (Jamie Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler), by the fractious behavior of the Mob cronies who are his dearest friends and worst betrayers.
Early on in the episode, the script calls for Tony to make a Boss wisecrack. A Fed whose unit has been taping Tony's associates tells him, ''There's something we want you to hear.'' Tony shoots back: ''The Springsteen box set? I already got it.'' But that's just nervous bravado by this time, he's been shaken by the ultimate betrayal: He's pretty sure that his mother (Nancy Marchand), and his uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) have ordered his death. Why? Because the anxiety-attacked Tony's been seeing a therapist (Lorraine Bracco's Dr. Melfi), and they're afraid he's blabbed too much family business to an outsider.
The ironies spun here are dizzying: Tony may die because he can't share worries and fears a normal son would be able to vouchsafe to his mother in this case his embittered, possibly demented, but more likely crazy-like-a-fox mother and must go outside both the family and the Family to find comfort and advice. (A stunned, Prozac- and lithium-dosed Tony moans, ''What kind of person can I be where his own mother wants him dead?'')
With all due respect to Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas, The Sopranos is the first piece of popular art to spin something entirely fresh from the crime-family dynamics that Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola laid out in The Godfather. The comic contrast between Tony's down-and-dirty 9-to-5 and his staid suburban haven is both endlessly rich and artfully negotiated.
In a recent interview with the online mag Salon, Chase said that in this show, ''people talk to each other and they really aren't communicating. That's what happens in life.'' Exactly: The Sopranos thrives on misunderstandings and (sometimes literally) strangled sentiments, which in turn lead to the hurt feelings and rages that propel its fleet narratives.
The equally energetic Futurama deserves a Simpsons-size audience, and The Sopranos' HBO cult can only grow: It's renewed for another season, with reruns of these first 13 episodes to start June 9. With visions as unique as those of Groening and Chase making the small screen as artistically exciting as any area of pop culture, the future looks downright rosy.
The Sopranos: A