Unlike Tony Soprano, the tough but rattled suburbanized crime boss in The Sopranos, this miraculous show's creator, David Chase, is an uncompromised, confident boss. As the orchestrator of The Sopranos' sustained aria of life, death, nursing-home limbo, suburban-neighborhood hell, and strip-club heaven, Chase has used television in an unprecedented manner. Part of the immense pleasure of The Sopranos' debut season was watching the work of a man who'd mastered a new form: Chase spent 13 weeks crossing the miniseries with the soap opera, draining his fresh synthesis of those old genres' hokey melodrama, and then flooding it with vibrant humor, rage, psychoanalytic insight, and a good red wine to wash down all the pasta everyone is always eating.
The Sopranos' new season finds a tigerish Tony (the grrrreat James Gandolfini) reasserting his leadership over the Mob family business now that its figurehead, the double-crossing Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), is in jail. Director Allen Coulter commences the first episode with a bravura montage: As Frank Sinatra croons ''It Was a Very Good Year,'' we're shown a succession of quick, wordless scenes that reacquaint us with the series' characters: Tony's wife, Carmela (Emmy-winning Edie Falco), baking; Tony teaching his college-bound daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), how to drive; and Tony's duplicitous mother, Livia a gargoyle in a hospital gown lying in bed, the oxygen mask clamped over her mouth like a symbol of the silence she maintains about her own plotting against her son. (Nancy Marchand as Livia gets more dramatic mileage out of a hospital bed than Keanu Reeves did with a careering bus in Speed.)
And what of Tony's therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, whose knowledge of Soprano crime activity made her a potential revenge target at the end of last season? She has fled her office and gone in her own bitterly arch, unprofessional term ''on the lam.'' Melfi now sees patients in a motel room, nervously peeking over their shoulders when they leave to see if some hood is aiming a rifle at her as she hovers in the doorway. (Lorraine Bracco as Melfi somehow manages to convey a simultaneous mixture of professional disinterest and personal fear through the smallest movements of her eyes and mouth.)
Melfi wants nothing to do with Tony she's dropped him as a patient but it is to the credit of Chase and his writers that they manage to keep her as an important character even though she's currently cut off from the central action of the show. (Look forward, in the near future, to scenes between Melfi and her therapist, played by film director Peter Bogdanovich with the amusing complacency of a stuffed owl.)
Foremost among the new season's fresh faces is Tony's sister, Janice, played by Aida Turturro. Just when Tony thinks he's got one meddlesome relative under control (if his mom hadn't had a debilitating stroke, he'd have smothered her with the hospital pillow he clutched in his paws last season), Janice arrives a hippie-dippy greed-head in from Seattle who preaches peace and love but is angling for Mom's house and money. It's my guess and hope, having watched the first three episodes, that Janice is around for a limited run on The Sopranos; her whining guile has left me with a Tony-like urge to see some piano wire pulled tightly around her neck.
Not that a mere TV show could inspire violent feelings in a viewer, of course. Hah! One of the myriad greatnesses of The Sopranos is that, to paraphrase the Godfather paraphrase that Steven Van Zandt's Silvio frequently quotes, it keeps pulling you back in back in on yourself, appealing to your basest instincts, to your fundamental urge to hear a bloody story well told. All this, plus a pitch-perfect Analyze This joke, the use of Deep Purple's ''Smoke on the Water'' as Hitchcockian suspense music, and the Mob definition of Boston: ''Scranton with clams.''
Eat up, gang. A