David Chase is an artist who knows to take the cliché''Familiarity breeds contempt'' seriously -- for the truth it holds and the challenge it poses. Thus, as the fifth season of The Sopranos begins, we are back where it all began, in that driveway of Tony Soprano's Jersey mini-mansion. But instead of seeing James Gandolfini's Mob boss in his bathrobe picking up the morning newspaper as we have in every season premiere since the 1999 pilot, we now watch daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn DiScala) run over the paper with her car as she zooms up to the house.
It's Chase's way of saying we've been here before, but things have changed. The Sopranos' home is now Tony-deprived, the fallout from the rattle-the-plaster argument he and wife Carmela (Edie Falco) had at the end of last season. On the soundtrack, ''The Sopranos'' is once again hitting just the right discordant note with music that shouldn't belong in a Mob drama -- in this case, Emmylou Harris mournfully trilling ''Heaven Only Knows.''
Love has gone from bad to worse here: Carmela roams the house as if it were an abandoned castle, forced to be both nurturer and protector. When her ever-more-sullen, obnoxiously adolescent son, AJ (Robert Iler), is cornered in the backyard by a bear, he reverts to childish helplessness, screaming ''Mommy!'' until Carmela scares the lumbering animal away. But it's the lumbering animal NOT present -- Tony (and Gandolfini, I'm pleased to say, has never looked more ursine) -- that haunts this broken family. By turning the Sopranos into a bunch of bitter squabblers -- in a later episode, there'll be a tiff about which spouse gets the home entertainment system -- it's as though creator Chase is courting our impatience, our contempt, goading us to grumble, ''Haven't you done this already?''
Well, yes and no. ''The Sopranos'' introduces a clutch of new characters when some previously unseen mobsters are set free on parole. These include the now-leonine veteran character actor Robert Loggia; Joe Santos from ''The Rockford Files'' (where Chase served time as a writer and producer); and the straw-thin Steve Buscemi (''Ghost World''), who directed one of the best-known ''Sopranos'' episodes, season 3's snowy ''Pine Barrens.'' (In a witty gesture, it's recapped in the premiere as a shaggy-dog story told over drinks by Michael Imperioli's Christopher.) Speaking of Christopher, he's struggling to stay sober, more resentful than ever of his errand-boy status now that the jailbird mobsters want to, as Loggia's Feech puts it, ''get back in the game.''
This is where ''Sopranos'' familiarity might breed tedium, not all-out contempt, in some viewers. Old plotlines like Christopher's whiny beefs, and the guilt his fiancée, Adriana (Drea de Matteo), feels as she rats out everyone to the government, are precious-time wasters. Chase's writers also tend to make Tony too dumb: The big guy we've watched wise up over the years would never be so lame as to quote from Dr. Phil, as he does in the first episode, or try to mend his long-standing quarrel with chef Artie (John Ventimiglia) by inviting the bald pasta maker to move in to Tony's bachelor pad with him. Most of all, it seems absurd that, after all he's been through with therapist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), Tony would reexplore his attraction to her and then lose his cool yet again over her wooden professional demeanor. And Falco has a right to complain about being shoved into another out-of-character flirtation. Remember the first season and the movie-loving priest? Well, this time someone at AJ's school gets too close, too fast.
No, ''The Sopranos'' isn't the constant shock-of-the-new it once was; even its moments of abrupt, crazy violence are easily spotted. But there are still many scenes that are touching and devastatingly sincere; all I'll say about this material is that a lot of it involves two belovedly unlovable characters, the silver-winged Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) and the increasingly fragile Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese). Oh, yeah -- and there's a ''Curb Your Enthusiasm'' reference embedded in the season that's gonna make Larry David's year. Now if only Tony would curb his snarling-puppy-dog side and let that confident inner bear out more often...