DRAMA

HBO (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET)

bgwhite bgwhite bgwhite  



Guess what? Mafia chieftain Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) has a cousin named Tony Blundetto, and this goodfella was like a brother to him till Tony B. went to prison in the '80s.

Tony B. (Steve Buscemi) is out of the joint and back in Boss Tony's world in the second episode (March 14) of The Sopranos' fifth season. His appearance is the occasion for exposition that's not as smooth as we'd expect from this extraordinary series. Yet the season premiere (March 7) has moments so compelling that you'll be irresistibly drawn back into the family business.

Tony Soprano, unhappily separated from wife Carmela (Edie Falco), is inspired by the Barbra Streisand-Nick Nolte movie The Prince of Tides to seek a romantic relationship with his former therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). As the gangster's overtures go from endearing to disturbing, Gandolfini superbly conveys the emotional neediness behind his character's bluff facade. "You're turning me into half a stalker," Tony jokes. Only we're afraid to laugh. Meanwhile there's Sopranos black comedy at its best as Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) quarrel over restaurant bills and then find common ground through an act of good old senseless violence.

The character of Tony B., who talks of going straight as a licensed masseur, develops too slowly. Another recent parolee, mouthy Mob warhorse Feech La Manna (Robert Loggia), effectively grates on Tony Soprano's nerves but seems headed for the sidelines in the fourth episode. On the other hand, the domestic side never lacks for conflict. Every parent will hurt for Carmela when son A.J. (Robert Her) sullenly rebuffs her attempts to communicate. Where did he learn such disrespect?

COMEDY

FOX (check listings)

bgwhite bgwhite   



If this sitcom were smarter and subtler, it might be another Arrested Development. Unfortunately, its creative development seems to be arrested.

FOX is giving the new show two shots after American Idol (March 9 and 10 at 9:30 p.m. ET) before it settles into its regular Monday slot (March 15 at 8:30). That means many eyes should be on the early misadventures of psychology grad student Ben (Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman), who is hired by rich Ted and Lesley (Christopher McDonald and Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon) to be a live-in therapist for their 9-year-old son Tanner (Bret Loehr). Ben quickly learns that the parents, along with teenagers Chloe and Preston (Caitlin Wachs and Jake Sandvig), are the real nutbars in the family.

The rookie shrink's growing incredulity is funny in the opener, but the second episode sinks to the bottom of the hot tub when Ben's pal Liam (David Walton) offers to provide "sleazy chicks" who will relieve Preston of his virginity.

DRAMA

ABC (Mon., March 8, 9 p.m. ET)

bgwhite bgwhite   



Though this so-so Bible story has been sitting on ABC's shelf since 2001, its belated airing may draw a bit of extra interest thanks to the massive publicity surrounding Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. To put it irreverently, Jesus is hot right now.

In this account, Judas (Johnathon Schaech) is a brooding rebel keen to drive the Roman oppressors from the land of Israel. Judas sees Jesus (Jonathan Scarfe) as the potential leader of a liberation movement, but the man from Galilee turns out to be frustratingly mellow and above politics. Alienated and angry, Judas sells Jesus out—and almost instantly regrets it.

Schaech's intense performance is the film's best feature. Too often Scarfe's Jesus seems like a philosophical surfer dude.

"You're welcome to join us," Jesus says after introducing Judas to some disciples.

"Where are you going?" Judas asks.

"Where do you need to be?" the Savior replies with a smile. Far out, man.

Tim Matheson is adequate as Roman governor Pontius Pilate—if you can force yourself to forget him similarly attired in the Animal House toga party.

REALITY

TLC (Mondays, 10 p.m. ET)

bgwhite bgwhite   



As you watch The Apprentice, do you wish someone would kick Donald Trump downstairs—figuratively, of course—and draft him into the working class?

This fairly fresh reality series (premiering March 8) doesn't provide quite that visceral a thrill, but it does make corporate big shots sweat a little. Each week a different top exec tries his hand at low-level positions in his company. Jonathan Tisch, chairman of Loews Hotels, lugs bags and cleans rooms. California Pizza Kitchen cofounders Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield flip pies and wait tables. The bosses aren't incognito, so their job training seems gentler than average. Still, it's fun to see them humbled, however briefly.

The show's treatment of the businesses is too promotional, and the second episode goes to ridiculous lengths to hype Estée Lauder honcho Dan Brestle's fear of applying makeup to any woman's face. Even so, watching this isn't hard work.

>MORE FROM THE MORGUE

Crossing Jordan (NBC, March 7, 10 p.m. ET)

Sexy but flinty medical examiner Jordan Cavanaugh (Jill Hennessy) returns for a third season.

SHRINK RAPS

Significant Others (Bravo, March 9, 9 p.m. ET)

Eight actors improvise their way through therapy in this new comedy about couples in and out of marriage counseling.

TOY STORY

Game over (UPN, March 10, 8 p.m. ET)

Hope the title's not prophetic. Patrick Warburton and Lucy Liu head the voice cast of this new comedy about an animated family inhabiting a video-game universe.

GIRL'S EYE FOR THE QUEER GUY

Playing it Straight (FOX, March 12, 8 p.m. ET)

A woman tests her "gaydar" on 14 would-be suitors for this new reality dating show.

YOU TALKIN' TO ME?

Wonderfalls (FOX, March 12, 9 p.m. ET)

A girl hears messages from inanimate objects in the debut of a series that sounds very Joan of Arcadia.

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Kelleher.