When one of his lieutenants returns after a long absence, jumpy Mafia boss Tony Soprano exclaims, "I don't see you for all this time - no word, nothing - and this is how you come back to me?"
Viewers could say the same.
It's been nine months since the last original episode of the series aired, but "The Sopranos" finally returns tonight, pretty much true-to-form.
An acquired taste to be sure, "The Sopranos" second-season premiere begins with a montage sequence that reminds viewers of the primary characters in this mob drama that pits the demands of family against the demands of the family.
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When: 9 p.m. Jan. 16 on HBO.
Starring: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco
To the strains of Frank Sinatra singing "It Was a Very Good Year," viewers see antihero Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) named "street boss" on the FBI bulletin board as Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) withers in prison. Tony's nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) still watches mob movies while snorting cocaine; Tony's wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), continues to bake ziti; Tony's teen-age daughter, Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler), learns to drive; Tony's shrink, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), sees clients out of a motel room; and Tony continues to sleep with mistresses.
Some montages pound you over the head. On "The Sopranos," subtlety is the key, except when it comes to Tony's feelings for his evil mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand). After she tried to have him whacked last season, Tony declares, "she's dead to me," whenever anyone dares to breathe her name.
That happens all too frequently when Tony's hippie sister Pavarti - nee Janice (Aida Turturro) - returns to the roost. Turns out she's as conniving as her mother, but nowhere near as slick.
Written by Jason Cahill and series creator David Chase, tonight's episode (titled "Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist's Office ...") begins to set up reasons for Tony's return to a therapist, but it won't be Dr. Melfi. At least not for a few episodes. She's running scared. Instead Tony visits a male shrink who refuses to treat Tony.
"I know who you are and I saw 'Analyze This,'" the shrink says. "I don't need the ramifications that could arise from treating someone such as yourself."
Tony is insulted, but not because the guy refuses to counsel him.
"'Analyze This'? It's a (expletive) comedy!" Tony says.
A smart, sophisticated soap for adults, "The Sopranos" is still full of expletives, nudity and the occasional act of gruesome violence. It's not a program for everyone, but for viewers who can see past the verisimilitude trappings to get at the mind games the characters play with one another. The series still entertains on both visceral and intellectual levels.
This season Tony has found a new racket in the stock market, pushing a stock with Christopher as the linchpin. Unfortunately, Christopher has hired two dumb-as-bricks pretty boy helpers, who only want to kiss Tony's ring.
Further complications arise with the prison release of Richie Aprile (David Proval) in the third episode of the new season. Richie's loyalty to Uncle Junior and his rekindled romantic interest in Janice will certainly cause Tony further agitation.
As always, "The Sopranos" is at its more revealing when it traffics in the mundane details of family life. Tony has few qualms about doling out bribes or even committing murder every now and then, but parenting his children remains a mystery. When Meadow gets drunk partying with friends, Tony and Carmela find it nearly impossible to mete out a punishment.
"There has to be consequences," Carmela says as the couple lie in bed.
"Let's not overplay our hand," Tony replies. "Because if she finds out we're powerless, we're (expletive)."
At its root, "The Sopranos" is pure soap opera, but it's so layered, so complex that it towers over prime-time soaps of old.
If you're a fan, be thankful the Sopranos are back in all their f-word spewing, brain-crushing, familial discord glory.
Who says there aren't enough family shows on TV?