Although some past seasons have opened slowly, HBO’s latest visit from “The Sopranos” begins eventfully enough that little if anything about it should be revealed. Suffice it to say for long-suffering junkies that the series continues to take creative chances, and that its near-two-year hiatus should only heighten the appetite for David Chase’s gourmet feast. Characteristic of this series that largely merits its hype, few will leave disappointed.
Granted, one can quibble about the show’s Paul Masson, “We shall serve no episode until its time” attitude, inasmuch as other Emmy-worthy series manage to appear with greater frequency than congressional elections. Then again, strictly in terms of its immeasurable value to HBO, whose Sunday-night lineup has desperately (as in “Housewives”) felt the program’s absence, “The Sopranos” has earned the right to be something of a prima donna.
Perhaps foremost, the four episodes previewed offer a stunning showcase for Edie Falco as Carmela, the wife of mob boss Tony (James Gandolfini), and, by her own admission, a sort-of accessory after the fact to his misdeeds. Gandolfini is such a larger-than-life figure, it’s easy to forget Falco is every bit his match, the perfect blending of actress and role.
As for the episodes themselves, there is a genuine surprise in the premiere, followed by an 11-minute opening sequence in the second hour that underscores the tremendous creative license afforded series creator David Chase and his team — liberated by the knowledge that both network and audience are committed to the ride.
Along the way, the series riffs on the movie business, hip-hop, issues of mortality and the TV classic “Kung Fu,” with the usual mix of drama, explosive bursts of violence and occasional laugh-out-loud dark humor. (HBO’s marketing guru also makes a cameo, albeit in name only, as “Dr. Plepler,” played by Ron Leibman.)
In short, “Sopranos” picks up pretty much where it left off — a testament to the program’s enduring quality, as well as the tooth-pulling process that has brought it to this juncture. Chase has agreed to continue producing additional episodes with the sort of grudging enthusiasm normally reserved for prostate exams. This current flight represents the first of 20 installments destined to play out through the show’s preordained conclusion, unless, given past fits and starts, for some reason it isn’t.
Not all “The Sopranos'” flights of fancy pan out (and I’d put that aforementioned second-episode sequence among them), but it never fails to fascinate, creating a completely organic world in which it’s easy to forget the art and artifice that go into realizing Chase’s vision. And if all this sounds purposefully opaque, this much should be clear: For HBO and millions of fans, however long the vacation, “The Sopranos” couldn’t have returned soon enough.