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NewCityNet Original Gang Stars

By Elaine Richardson

JANUARY 17, 2000:  "The Sopranos" is a phenomenon. A gritty, original piece of drama that topped just about everyone's year-end list and has caused more than one critic to gush uncontrollably. (The New York Times led the swoon parade, calling it "the greatest work of pop culture in the last quarter-century.")

And the outpouring of praise was well-timed, raising buzz to a fever pitch just before the new season. But can the show live up to its own hype? It's much easier to produce a bravura bank of episodes that hurl viewers hell-bent for leather toward an inevitable cliffhanger, but it's much more difficult to tie up loose ends and move on with the same intensity.

Case in point: The last show with this kind of incredible buzz, David Lynch's "Twin Peaks," held court in spring and during summer reruns, but completely fell apart come fall when they actually had to explain something.

Though it's not immediately obvious, taken as a whole, the first three episodes of the new season are even better than those of the first. Stunningly complex, the new shows resolve some of the old conflicts—leaving a few to tease us, and establish new characters—expanding the tangled web that is Tony Soprano's (the amazing James Gandolfini) "family."

We've seen Tony as the power behind the throne, but with Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) in jail, we now see Tony the boss. Will the power blind him? Can he still see all the angles? Maybe not. And what about his mental state? With his shrink Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) still ticked at him for sending her on the lam, he's got no one to turn to for guidance.

His wife Carmela (Edie Falco) isn't what you'd call supportive. And his mother from hell (Nancy Marchand), now hospitalized for some kind of illness, runs the gamut from vindictively controlling to completely out of it.

The arrival of his sister Janice (Aida Turturro) is an addition that should keep the plot twisting for weeks to come. Ostensibly coming in to care for her mother, she's a clever little grifter with her own motives.

And don't count Uncle Junior out; an old player with slick lawyers, he's still very much in the picture. Though it takes the full three episodes to fully resolve the mess left from last season, and to draw our interest toward new intrigues, it's worth every second. No one is shortchanged. Our characters aren't betrayed, there's new mob movie jokes (from "Godfather III" to "Analyze This"), and there's even a few lines to rival the "What? No fucking ziti?" from last year's opener. So order HBO now or invite yourself to visit friends who subscribe—these aren't to be missed.

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