As “The Sopranos” heads into season No. 2, writing remains crisp, photography is sharp and interesting, new characters lend intriguing plot twists and James Gandolfini continues to expertly play the most compelling character on series television, Tony Soprano. Creator David Chase has again lined up such superior talent that it’s difficult to single out any particular aspect of the show: It’s just plain brilliant.
Chase wastes no time with formalities as he roams North Jersey locales to peek at the shenanigans and shakedowns.
The season starts warm and fuzzy as all the familiar faces are found in friendly confines: For a few fleeting moments, it’s turmoil-free terrain. Don’t be fooled, though: Graphic violence and silicone-heavy strippers are still part of the landscape.
The show picks up where it left off, with ongoing relationships always at the risk of peril as new characters enter the fray. First is Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro), a flaky wanderer returning home from Seattle after running out of alternative lifestyles.
She’s in need of money and never quite spells out her agenda; however, over the first three segs it becomes clear she hopes to inhabit, or sell, the home that her mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) has vacated during a hospital stay.
Fresh out of the slammer, made man Richie Aprile (David Proval) is hungry to reclaim his turf, starting with a local pizza joint. Richie, who gets some of his respect due to brother Jackie who died last season, is a hot-head intent on paying back those he believed wronged him, most particularly the owner of the pizza parlor.
Aprile is a well-written mobster who not only won’t go with the flow, but who has no understanding of the FBI surveillance or the dilemmas facing Soprano. Provale plays it stern, stone-faced and cold as his character works both sides of the Soprano family, meeting in private with Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), who’s out of jail on a medical technicality, and meeting in shopping malls with Soprano — and then attempting to date Tony’s sister Janice.
Which again brings the series back to the everyday troubles that hang over Tony Soprano. No longer can he meet with field soldiers at the local hang, no longer does he have a psychiatrist to confide in, no longer is he even allowed to raise his children the way he believes kids should be raised. And, as he says in a voice of rage about his mother, “She’s dead to me,” adding to an already complicated psychological makeup.
Soprano battles anxiety attacks and blackouts at benign activities such as a backyard barbecue. There’s a universal appeal to Gandolfini’s character — at times he’s hardly a tough wiseguy, just a confused father unable to play by rules that he had no hand in writing or revising — a hard concept for him to accept when he’s been the neighborhood rule-maker for so long.
Responsibility is the thematic bond of the first three episodes of the season, a sign that, yes, even wiseguys have moral codes as deep as those of teenagers’ parents. The apology that Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore) delivers to Soprano as the debut episode opens signifies a bond that can be bent and even mangled — provided betrayal isn’t in the picture.
The first seg’s opening montage visits the familiar characters in new settings, the most telling being Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) seeing patients in a motel room. As he hunts for a new shrink, she attempts to reconcile what exactly she is feeling; as much as she wants to be indifferent, Melfi is confused by the deprivation of Soprano’s secrets and attention. He, on the other hand, can’t find another willing doctor.
The scripts for the first three segs — written variously by Jason Cahill, Chase, Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess and Frank Renzulli — are filled with an uncommon richness. There are lines in episode one that fall hard on the ears, but by the third hour there isn’t a word that doesn’t ring true. At its best, dialogue flows like conversations that were lifted from FBI-surveillance tapes or recordings from your nephew’s birthday party — it’s the small-talk, and the intimate discussions, that give “Sopranos” such realism.
At the end of episode one, for example, Soprano is inexplicably at home, not quite moping and, as usual, hiding a secret or two from wife Carmela (Edie Falco, who picked up an Emmy for the role). They dance around one another uncomfortably, unsure of how each fits into the other’s life and yet there’s warmth and a mission as she warms up a bowl of pasta and he sits and eats. They are more parents than partners, and director of photography Alik Sakharov ensures that no words are needed to convey the state of their relationship. A beautiful quiet moment for “The Sopranos.”