Nothing here will spoil developments contained in the first two episodes of "The Sopranos'" final stretch of nine, other than to suggest that they hint of bigger things to come, which represents a minor surprise.

Nothing here will spoil developments contained in the first two episodes of “The Sopranos'” final stretch of nine, other than to suggest that they hint of bigger things to come, which represents a minor surprise. Many expressed frustration with the last batch of installments, failing to recognize series creator David Chase’s perversity — his desire to flout TV conventions, even if that means that this landmark program concludes more with a whimper than a bang (or bing). Whatever the final payoff, millions will rightfully miss this show, none more so than the folks at HBO.

Appropriately, the new semi-season finds Tony (James Gandolfini) wrestling with issues of aging and mortality, while his ersatz nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) continues his foray into the movie business with a mob-themed splat-fest titled “Cleaver.” In one of those lines sure to be quoted the next week, a mobbed-up investor watching a rough cut muses, “I think there’s potentially more money in this than in the porn we’ve done.”

These episodes, however, are all about unintended consequences, as well as the underlying idea that a mob boss is not necessarily someone whose feelings you want to hurt. Violating that warning yields a strong undercurrent of tension throughout these initial hours, which are peppered with cameos by the likes of Sydney Pollack, Daniel Baldwin, Tim Daly (reprising an earlier role as a sniveling screenwriter) and Geraldo Rivera.

For all the accolades rightfully heaped on Gandolfini and Edie Falco as his flinty wife Carmela, “Sopranos” has also been characterized by an extraordinarily gifted overall cast, with the return providing an especially strong showcase for Vincent Curatola as Johnny Sack, the serpentine mob boss whose incarceration has left a troublesome power void within the New York mob. Curatola, like some of the other supporting players, so inhabits Johnny it’s easy to forget the brilliant performance delivered in the seamless meshing of actor with character, or his ability to make a murderer oddly sympathetic.

Chase and company have always reveled in meshing mobsters with suburbia and the headaches associated with juggling their two families — the one at home and the one that puts gabagol on the table. Perhaps that’s why the suspicion here is that Tony won’t be whacked or frog-marched away in handcuffs, recognizing that limping toward one’s golden years in New Jersey is probably punishment enough.

The series itself, meanwhile, remains a cable anomaly in its cultural and ratings impact, even with the major inroads registered in the eight years since its premiere. And while HBO still has plenty of firepower left in its programming arsenal, as the biggest of big guns, “The Sopranos” won’t be easily replaced — either by the pay channel, or those fortunate to have been part of it.

The Sopranos

HBO, Sun. April 8, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in New Jersey by HBO Entertainment, Brad Grey Television and Chase Films. Executive producers, David Chase, Brad Grey, Ilene S. Landress, Terence Winter, Matthew Weiner; co-executive producer, Henry J. Bronchtein; supervising producers, Diane Frolov, Andrew Schneider; producers, Martin Bruestle, Gianna Smart; director, Tim Van Patten; writers, Frolov, Schneider, Chase, Weiner.

Crew

Camera, Phil Abraham; editor, William B. Stich; production designer, Bob Shaw; casting, Georgianne Walken, Sheila Jaffe. Running time: 60 MIN.

Cast

Tony Soprano - James Gandolfini Carmela Soprano - Edie Falco Dr. Jennifer Melfi - Lorraine Bracco Christopher Moltisanti - Michael Imperioli Junior Soprano - Dominic Chianese Anthony Soprano Jr. - Robert Iler Meadow Soprano - Jamie-Lynn Sigler Paulie Walnuts - Tony Sirico Silvio Dante - Steven Van Zandt Janice - Aida Turturro Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri - Steven R. Schirripa Artie Bucco - John Ventimiglia Johnny Sack - Vincent Curatola Phil Leotardo - Frank Vincent Little Carmine - Ray Abruzzo

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more