The creative engine that is “The Sopranos” always takes awhile to build up steam, proceeding at an almost leisurely pace as HBO’s big subscription locomotive goes about introducing new characters and adding layers to old ones. So it is with the first few episodes of the penultimate year, though the wheels do get moving a bit faster than in the past. Worthy of most accolades showered upon it (which is saying something), the long layoff between seasons hasn’t dimmed the show’s status as one of TV’s gems — a family drama like no other, imitated but unlikely to be equaled.
As usual, mob boss Tony (James Gandolfini), like a lot of paunchy middle-aged guys, has his problems at work and home, though at least initially the job feels more troublesome.
For starters, a number of mobsters have finished doing time from a crackdown during the 1980s and are being released back into society. This “class of ’04” quickly begins fueling tensions and turf battles.
Adding to the tumult, the death of Carmine (“A great man,” we’re told, “who invented point shaving”) leaves Tony caught in the middle of an increasingly brutal war between the deceased’s son, Little Carmine, and the former capo’s ostensible right-hand man, Johnny Sack (the convincingly oily Vincent Curatola).
Tony is only slightly less beset at home. Separated from wife Carmela (Edie Falco), he romantically fixates on his former psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), who, both intrigued and frightened, uncomfortably rebuffs his awkward advances. Meanwhile, son A.J. (Robert Iler) is clearly upset by his parents’ separation, manifested by thinly veiled hostility toward his frustrated mother.
Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) also begins to exhibit new health problems, as his care begins to exact a toll on those well-fed newlyweds, Janice (Aida Turturro) and Bobby (Steven R. Schirripa).
Yet those threads barely scratch the surface of the show’s rich array of characters, with the terrific addition of Robert Loggia as a paroled boss and Steve Buscemi as Tony’s cousin, who seems determined to try to go straight now that he’s back on the streets.
Given the extended lapse since the last batch of new episodes, creator David Chase (who co-wrote the fifth-season premiere with Terence Winter) perhaps wisely takes time easing into the show’s rhythms. That said, the sense of pending menace and “potential for bloodshed,” as a character warns, feel more consistently present this time around.
Fans tend to revel in the program’s smaller moments and deft touches, which are plentiful in the quartet of episodes provided by HBO, whose “not TV” slogan possesses no better standard-bearer than this — a show that steadfastly resists most dramatic-series conventions.
Perhaps more than anything, “The Sopranos’ ” brilliance hangs on the juxtaposition of the brutal, at-times glamorous Mafia world with how utterly mundane their lives are otherwise. In fact, when not offing rivals or ogling strippers, they spend a lot of time sitting around watching TV — viewing, at various times, home-improver Bob Vila, motivational speaker Tony Robbins and, in a hilarious moment, HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Then there’s the mob-run poker game, featuring cameos by former NFL great Lawrence Taylor and Bernie Brillstein. The latter proves he can hold his own at a table full of killers as comfortably as sitting opposite Michael Ovitz, but he should probably leave the acting to his clients.
The sprawling cast is almost uniformly superb, though the series functions at its highest level whenever it features Falco and Gandolfini, whose operatic highs last season, as their marriage unraveled, will be difficult to top. For all the talk about his off-season contract holdout, Gandolfini remains riveting in a role he was pretty well born to play — and the likes of which, it’s worth noting, he’s not likely to encounter again.
Not that there’s much new about that. After all, phenomena like “The Sopranos” come along only so often, which explains why no matter how much time passes between seasons, HBO subscribers will be lined up at the depot waiting for the next ride.