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The Sopranos: Back So Soon?

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The problem in reviewing the first episodes of this season of The Sopranos was being unable to write about anything interesting that happened. Tony’s getting shot, his wandering in that odd Southern California purgatory and then his awakening from a coma last night — a critic had little to say except. "Um, some interesting stuff coming up, folks! The season sure, uh, starts off with a bang!"

I may be in the minority of viewers when I say I wish David Chase had kept Tony Soprano in a coma longer. The season’s second episode last week, one of the best-written and -acted to date, ingeniously allowed us to see what Tony life could have been had he been a different person — a straight arrow with a neutral accent, shackled to a briefcase, forced to put up with the indignities of life that the Tony know we would have handled by braining someone with a telephone.

The episode inspired a lot of kvetching from the sorts of fans who are always put out when an episode doesn’t feature a dozen whackings and a glossary full of Italian curses. It was a tonal departure — the eerie, antiseptic limbo Tony was in was more reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro than Mario Puzo — and the problem with TV is that the fans aren’t forgiving of departures. Fans also turned in numbers on the end of the fourth season, with the breakup of Tony and Carmela, a searing but bloodless episode that was all too John Cheever for viewers who just wanted another helping of red sauce. You can understand Chase’s wanting to end the show; fans hail your creativity and then get put out when you actually do anything, er, creative.

Anyway, the Sopranos traditionalists were probably happy to see Tony sprung from his coma last night, after a brief temptation to join Steve Buscemi in the afterworld, with previews of the next episode showing Tony back involved in the family business. I suppose you couldn’t keep Tony in his Hotel California alternate existence forever, but it all seemed too fast and, for The Sopranos, too TV — the family miraculously calling him back from the edge of death when doctors had all but written him off. (The recovery rang especially contrived when compared with Nate’s abrupt hospital death on Six Feet Under last year — after SFU had let us believe he was going to have yet another TV near-death scare.)

What bothered me more was how The Sopranos brought Tony back, his illness brought to crisis by Paulie Walnut’s yammering. Don’t get me wrong; Paulie is a great character, but he also embodies the most cartoony mob aspects of the show — the slick hair, the malapropisms ("It was f___in’ mayham!"), the ultraviolence. Having him essentially yank Tony back from the undead was like saying, "Madonn’, enough of this pretentious Buddhist monk crapola! Let’s go bust some heads!"

The big question now is whether the experience changes Tony at all. I wouldn’t bet money on it. And clearly there are a lot of die-hard fans out there who wouldn’t want him any other way.