David Chase begins season three of “The Sopranos” by taking a little advice from the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” — “a little bit softer, now/a little bit louder now.” Within the first three episodes, the Soprano family dramas unfold with shades of happiness that temper the traditional tension; the mob life, however, reaches a violent and turbulent clamor that includes some of the most graphic gore this show has ever displayed. In between, “The Sopranos” retains the title of the most involving series on television and James Gandolfini continues to be a powerhouse of a performer.
As the author of the show that is still the best reason to own a television set, Chase penetrates borders of morality and ethics deeper than he has in the preceding 26 episodes. Tony Soprano (Gandolfini) is making breakthroughs in his therapy with Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco, whose screen time decreases in relation with her importance) and as a father to son Anthony Jr., despite a cloud of familial hurt hovering over their relationship.
Christopher (Michael Imperioli) becomes a made man and the magical change he expects doesn’t come immediately. Seeing him struggle to fill the coffers of Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) is an exceptional delivery on the promise his character has shown from the start. After Tony, he is the most wildly conflicted individual in the cast; his aspirations outside “the family” have always made for good dramatic fodder and one assumes his ascension will only make his character that much more compelling.
The series takes longer to get up a head of steam this season but at least there isn’t an odd diversion like last season’s trip to Italy. By the time “University” airs on April 1, however, new audiences will be hooked as “The Sopranos” explores emotional territory involving college freshman daughter Meadow (the increasingly fiery Jamie-Lynn Sigler) that wasn’t possible when she lived under the same roof as mom and dad.
HBO is airing the first two episodes back to back, starting with “Mr. Ruggiero’s Neighborhood” in which the FBI launches an all-out bugging of the Soprano household. Episode two, “Proshai, Livushka,” covers the death of matriarch Livia (Nancy Marchand, who is digitally placed, not all that well, in a scene) and starts to explore the shifting relationship of Tony and daughter Meadow.
New this season is the drunken jerk Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano), whose behavior puts the Soprano strip club, Badda Bing, at risk and, for once, truly gives a mafiosi a bad name. “University” is “The Sopranos” at its rawest, displaying Cifaretto’s odious obsession with power and control until it spills into the degrading treatment, and eventual death, of a stripper. Meanwhile, he’s dating Rosalie Aprile (Sharon Angela), the widow of made-man Jackie, living a double life with none of the charm of Tony Soprano.
Show’s technical attributes are still first-rate and the direction/portrayals makes each character come to life. The traditionally sharp musical choices, however, are venturing into the obvious, particularly when Sting is heard singing “I’ll be watching you” over police surveillance scenes.