At long last, 'Sopranos' pleads the fifth

Saturday, March 6, 2004

"The Sopranos" (8 p.m. Sunday, HBO) returns for its fifth season with several new characters and a boatload of unresolved issues. Tony and Carmela's bitter separation gets decidedly weirder when Anthony Jr. discovers a bear sniffing around the backyard pool (and Tony's bin of rotting duck food). Like most of the action in this season-opener, the bear scenario is played for both laughs and pathos, and teeters on the brink of the ridiculous without ever descending into pure farce.

In other New Jersey news, Tony and Uncle Junior await the return of several "family" members from their long prison stints. These include Tony's very close cousin Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi). The star of "Ghost World" and "Fargo," Buscemi directed the famous "Pine Barrens" episode of "The Sopranos" in season three. Buscemi's character doesn't show up until the second episode, but is well worth the wait. His arrival only compounds Tony Soprano's great paradox: As his family and his "family" grow increasingly burdensome, Tony's feelings of isolation and misery become more acute.

Just when you think you're comfortable with these characters, understand them and even like them, violence erupts in the most sudden and unsettling manner, reminding you that, for all of the awkward titters, this is still a mob drama, and a challenging and occasionally brilliant show that continues to redefine the gangster genre.

Tonight's other highlights

Sunday's other highlights