Eighteen months after its last U.S. airing, HBO's The Sopranos returns Sunday, March 12, with the first of 20 new episodes, kicking off its sixth and (creator David Chase swears on his pinky ring) final season. The home stretch will be split into two legs: 12 episodes now, eight more in January of 2007.
I've watched screeners of the first couple of new episodes and plan to watch episodes three and four over the weekend, then kick off a new regular feature, "Sopranos Monday," in which I review the previous night's episode. I will, of course, precede each review with a "Spoiler Alert" tag, to dissuade those who missed the North American airing (or anyone who lives outside the U.S. or doesn't have HBO) from skimming the text and accidentally ruining a surprise.
For now, suffice to say that Chase and the gang appear to have surveyed the TV landscape, concluded that shows like Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica and Lost raised the creative bar for series drama, then decided, "Fuck it, we're better than any of those clowns—now watch us prove it."
I'll reserve sweeping qualitative pronouncements until the 12-episode arc has played out. But I will say that the first two episodes rank with the very best work the series has ever done. For a show that prides itself on reserving the right to meander and ruminate whenever it pleases—audience impatience be damned—the series enters its last season with a palpable sense of urgency. There isn't a line, a shot, a cut or a performance moment that doesn't satisfy on its own terms while contributing to what already looks like an ambitious master narrative, a mega-arc that aims, in the words of The Godfather, to settle all family business. An aura of finality hangs over every instant, a sense that it's all leading somewhere, probably someplace grim. The highest praise I can give is to say that with these first couple of new episodes, Chase, a longtime acolyte of David Lynch's Twin Peaks and Dennis Potter's BBC teleplays, can sleep soundly knowing he's made a series that draws upon, and occasionally equals, both.
I'll also encourage Sopranos watchers to visit the web site of The Star-Ledger of Newark, my base as a journalist, the paper Tony Soprano picks up from his driveway, and the home of the most comprehensive and original Sopranos writing you'll ever come across. My partner in TV coverage, Alan Sepinwall, inherited the beat from me (I wrote about the show during its first three seasons, he's covered the last three). The quality and quantity of his output has been impressive. This week alone he's published an interview with David Chase, a piece on the show's dream sequences, a piece about the art and science of whacking, a profile of the guy who owns the real-life New Jersey funeral home where the show's characters receive their final sendoffs, a feature about how Chase and company pick the songs for each episode, an account of the New York City premiere this week, a cryptic preview of Sunday's episode and an article in which cast and crew look back on the series, wax nostalgic and get ready for post-Sopranos life.
Update: I just finished episodes 3 and 4. They're as strong as 1 and 2. And they are not freestanding. More so than in any prior season (except maybe the first), they seem like chapters in a single, very long story, and they give every indication that the show will continue in that vein until it concludes next spring. To some extent, The Sopranos has always thought long-term, but rarely on such a grand scale. In these four episodes, every event and every character are connected and every incident has repercussions, including ones from previous seasons. I suspect that one-off episodes (long a Sopranos staple) will be largely AWOL this season. There is too much ground to cover, too many accounts to settle (not all of them financial). Twenty episodes, and that's it. Every minute matters.
So far the season seems built around the question, "Can a leopard change his spots?" I think I know the answer, but I still want to see how the show gets there. Ross Ruediger (see comments page) is correct. The show isn't playing the same old cards. It brought a fresh deck.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.