When “The Sopranos” debuted, the across-the-board high quality of the show was such that it stunned nearly everyone who saw it. Most critics had never seen anything so captivating, so cinematic, so distinct in its vision that there was no room for anything but accolades. Better than that, each season held up the promise of their debuts. Each of the three seasons has closed heavy on notes of family togetherness, but each opener has been a return to turmoil and the set-up for the fourth go-round is no different than its predecessors: We meet an important new character, the Soprano family is in a state of upheaval, and upstarts are threatening Tony Soprano’s empire as he still hopes for the ducks to return to his back yard. Show’s strengths — beyond the brilliant acting — lean toward the thematic as it turns a corner toward the bigger picture; there’s every reason to believe this year of “The Sopranos” goes head first into some of life’s greatest issues.
The first four episodes are all open-ended — an abundance of action and little resolution — as filmmakers supply clues about these characters’ directions. There appears to be several showdowns evolving, the fates of Tony’s nephew Christopher and one of the Soprano captains, Ralph (Joe Pantoliano), hang most prominently in the balance.
“The Sopranos” has grown beyond its original intention of showing mobsters and how they relate to their mothers; so many lines of power are blurred in Tony’s world it appears he can finally find sanctity in the one relationship he knows will be there in the end — that with his wife, Carmela.
Wisely, exec producer David Chase avoids last season’s introduction of new characters who did little more than make the show difficult to follow. Chase amps up the Tony-Carmela relationship in the first four episodes here.
Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) has spent the summer in bed mourning the murder of her former boyfriend, Jackie Jr., and talks extensively of spending the year traveling through Europe. Her parents, dead set against it, feel helpless.
Carmela will come to worry about money — to the point where Tony actually makes a change in his deposits — and the possibility that she may not be cared for the rest of her life. They do a verbal dance that emphasizes their inability to communicate with each other, each script so wonderfully capturing this couple as it struggles with the walls they’ve built around their hearts over the years.
It’s frustrating, too, that every conversation is cut short by their unwillingness to take another step closer toward solving their emotional troubles. Carmela’s frustration plays out in her starting to look to other men for things she needs, whether it’s a dancing partner or a friend to confide in. Oddly — and in a way it’s not surprising considering his lack of a range in emotional reactions — Tony reacts with passion.
Premiere episode opens in the household of a young couple, parents of a newborn and FBI agents both. Deborah Ciccerone (Lola Glaudini) dolls herself up in the Jersey image of Christopher’s fiance Andrea (Drea de Matteo) in the hopes of penetrating this crime family through a side door provided by the steady g.f.
Eventually the FBI is foiled, but the fun is watching Christopher (Michael Imperioli) suspect something’s not quite right with Deborah. His heroin use is on the rise and his inability to emotionally handle anything beyond the norm has him running for his kit and the smack.
Tony attempts to draw in Christopher and even that has the young charge reacting with suspicion when in fact, Tony’s motivation is a steadying of the Soprano ship. Their relationship, too, is walking a tightrope, with Tony seemingly offering balance and Christopher attempting to wildly wander back and forth.
On Tony’s other side is Ralph Cifaretto, whose value to the Soprano family has always been questionable. His greed is endangering a construction deal in Newark, his two-timing of Jackie Aprile’s widow gets too close to Tony for his liking, and his loose lips spark an inner-family conflict that suggests a violent end is on the way.
Pantoliano has finessed Ralph into one of “The Sopranos’ ” darkest characters, rising from a violent and smarmy knucklehead to a thorn-in-the-ass who has so penetrated the Soprano-run world that his dismissal is next to impossible. There are signals that his demise is possible, and how it plays out will be fascinating.