America's favorite mobsters are back.
WHEN: 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.
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HBO's "The Sopranos" begins its third season in excellent form Sunday at 9 p.m. with two back-to-back episodes. Why waste two episodes the first time up to bat when only 13 have been made? My guess is HBO wanted to satisfy fans of the series who might have been torqued after watching only the first hour.
"Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood," written by series creator David Chase, is told from the point of view of FBI agents trailing Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his crew. It's a lighthearted outing that shows the lengths the feds go to to catch the mobster breaking the law. It's also the most time devoted to the FBI and the least time devoted to the lead characters in any "Sopranos" episode so far, which might disappoint some fans.
But there's abundant reason for this slightly askew "Sopranos" outing. By following the FBI agents, viewers get a spy's-eye view of the Soprano family that reveals bits of character along the way.
We see Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) cutting class to smoke with his friends. We see Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and her roommate in their first days of college. We see Carmela (Edie Falco) and Adriana (Drea deMatteo) taking tennis lessons where Carmela's insecurities are revealed.
The episode also has a sly ending as Tony and Carmela both rush back to their home, called "the sausage factory" in FBI code.
The second episode of the night, "Proshai Livushka," takes the series in a direction fans have prepared themselves for: The death of Tony's mother. Nancy Marchand, who played Livia, died last summer, necessitating the demise of her character. But before that happens, Chase, who also wrote this hour, gives viewers one last taste of Livia's sharp tongue.
The second hour also marks the return of Janice (Aida Turturro), Tony's sister and Livia's successor as the show's resident source of distaff evil. Janice, who could justly be described as "a piece of work," returns for Livia's funeral and causes no end of trouble for Tony. Not that he doesn't deserve it.
Aside from being a cold-blooded killer, Tony shows an unfortunate knack for bigotry when Meadow brings home a boy who's of Jewish and African-American descent (Tony seems most upset about the kid being black).
"Keep playing the race card and you'll drive her into his arms," Carmela says.
"Not if I cut off those [expletive] arms," Tony responds.
The episode includes Livia's wake, which is appropriately disastrous. Even in death, Livia creates turmoil.
"The Sopranos" is almost always at its best when it concentrates on the family -- the Soprano family unit, not the mob family -- and these early episodes focus on that part of the show. Fans of the mafia stories get a hint of what's to come as Patsy Parisi (Dan Grimaldi) begins to self-destruct after the murder of his twin brother, Philip, an ally of Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese). The addition of actor Joe Pantoliano as another mobster is likely to dominate stories in future weeks.
Overall, "The Sopranos" returns in better form this year than it did at the start of its second season. New territory is explored and Chase seems more willing to push the Soprano story forward. It's not sitting in neutral by any means.
Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.