There is no more imposing actor on television than James Gandolfini, who carries his bulk as though his stomach were full of pasta and the world's suffering. Never before has so powerful a man been rendered so rickety, so emasculated; he doesn't breathe so much as he shrugs. Gandolfini, as Tony Soprano in HBO's revered The Sopranos, always looks like a man trying to find a rock beneath which he can hide -- if only so he can kill before he gets killed. The whore would gladly pawn his heart of gold if it would alleviate the pain that causes him to shake, sweat, even black out when the stress becomes too much. He'd like to think the world is a safe and serene place, even as he knows it's not -- mostly, because of him. "Out there, it's the 1990s," he once told his daughter. "In this house, it's 1954." He's the Jersey Mafia capo who longs to be nothing more than Ward Cleaver.
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini, second from left) and the boys return Sunday.
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But don't confuse flimsy for weak: Tony Soprano is a dangerous man who, in the words of Sopranos creator David Chase, "made a deal with the devil," only to find out he has a hard time carrying out his part of the bargain. Never in the history of the medium has there been a character who so thoroughly blurs the line between a promise and a threat; there is perhaps nothing so dangerous as a man with a conscience and an itchy trigger finger. Guilt begets guilt; pain begets pain. Then, that's the way Tony likes it -- if he suffers, those around him must suffer more than he. Gandolfini carries The Sopranos on his back and on his stomach; the man wears his anguish the way other wiseguys wear their sweatsuits and toupees and use the word "fuck" as a preposition.
Tony's even worse off now, at the beginning of the series' second season (which debuts January 16 at 8 p.m.), than he was at the end of the show's initial 13-episode run. He's without his therapist (Jennifer Melfi, portrayed by Lorraine Bracco), who wants nothing more to do with the man who ruined her practice and nearly got her killed once his friends and enemies discovered he was seeing a shrink. Tony -- who discovered his mother was trying to whack him, making her dead to him now -- is overcome by misery and guilt and pain, so much so that he passes out behind the wheel of his mammoth SUV; you can feel his stomach churn, his palms dampen, his head reel. He can't find a doctor who will see him: One says he's seen Analyze This and knows what can happen when shrinks get tangled up in the affairs of mobsters. "Analyze This?" Tony responds, angrier than ever; how dare the doc compare him to a cartoon.
The season premiere begins on a melancholy note, with Frank Sinatra bemoaning "It Was a Very Good Year" over a catching-up-with-the-Sopranos montage: We see Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand) in her hospital bed and in physical therapy; Uncle "Junior" (Dominic Chianese) behind bars; Dr. Melfi seeing patients out of a roadside motel room; Christopher Molisanti (Michael Imperioli) snorting coke as Edward G. Robinson plays on the TV; and Tony playing solitaire, collecting cash, and screwing around on his devoted macaroni-and-cheese-baking wife Carmela (Emmy winner Edie Falco). From there, things only get worse: "Big Pussy" Bompensiero (Vincent Pastore) shows up in Tony's driveway, insisting he disappeared to Puerto Rico for back treatments; Tony's dope-smoking sister Janice (Aida Turturro) comes home from Seattle; and Junior gets a medical release from prison as he awaits his racketeering trial. On top of all that, Mama Soprano's about ready to get out of the hospital.
At its best, The Sopranos is barely a Mob show; it's The Waltons in cheap Italian suits, The Godfather ready for prime time. Chase has created a show about how blood binds even those who despise one another. At times, the show can be too on-the-nose, such as when Janice leaves her mother's hospital room singing along to Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion." But The Sopranos is a subtle masterpiece -- a television show about tension, a pain that exists just beneath the surface. The Sopranos want only to be a "normal" family; they crave the tranquility of suburbia and pretend brutality exists somewhere else, anywhere but in their perfect home. That's what makes this a remarkable show -- because it's a violent show about damaged people who want the violence to disappear. Before they do.