BY TOM GLIATTO
Creator David Chase swears this will be the sixth and final season of The Sopranos, with an eight-episode coda in January. But be happy, fans. The first new episode is brilliant, a wonderfully invigorating reintroduction to a show that's been in repeats since June 13, 2004. The story rapidly catches up on the year since we last saw Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), as he lumbered to the safety of home after fleeing a surprise FBI bust on Johnny Sack. Uncle Junior, unsurprisingly, has deteriorated. Massive Vito Spatafore, surprisingly, has cut back on carbs (and, we'll see, increased his hunger for power). Then comes a violent twist. Let's just say it's plausible, shocking, ironic and with a weird undercurrent of pathos. Do not miss.
The problem with this wrenching development is that the aftershocks swamp the next few episodes. It's like having Frank Gehry remodel the Soprano home and then expecting Carmela to just walk right in and locate the old closets. The second episode is tiresomely oblique, and the third is wobbly. Edie Falco, at any rate, gets some electric scenes as Carmela. And the old brooding themes are still murmuring—death, decline, the irreparable past. My guess is that, when all's said and done, The Sopranos is really a metaphor for the baby boom generation's fear of age and time. The difference is that Tony can resort to therapy and murder.
HBO (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET)
In 1878 the Supreme Court upheld the federal government's ban on polygamy. One hundred and twenty-eight years later, Bill Henrickson, the wiley, affable and increasingly desperate hero of this crackling new series, disagrees. A Salt Lake City Mormon and businessman with an open, scrubbed face and dreams of building his home-improvement store chain into a new Wal-Mart, Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is a thriving husband too. He has three wives and seven kids, and he has installed them in three shiny new suburban homes built onto a common yard. It's illegal, of course, and against Mormon teachings, and all sorts of fictions have to be strung out to placate suspicious neighbors. The other source of tension is one of his fathers-in-law, Roman, head of the sprawling polygamous camp where Bill grew up. This man, who helped finance Bill's store and now demands a bigger chunk, is played by Harry Dean Stanton with the pinched cunning of a raccoon.
The other performances are just as fine—sharp, with fun little tweaks. Roman's daughter Nicki, who has a credit card debt problem and a strange intimacy with Daddy, is played with unexpected satiric sheen by Chloë Sevigny: With her stylish cinched waists, she looks like an Amish woman who sneaked a peek at Sex and the City. Big Love comes closer than any series to capturing some of the loose American satire of a Robert Altman movie. It's the best new show of the year.
ABC (Mondays, 10 p.m. ET)
A man blind for 22 years regains sight in one eye after two surgeries, and in thanks says that he would wipe away tears of happiness—if only his ducts were capable of manufacturing and leaking them. But the audience cries for him. You'd have to be a bobble head made of concrete not to.
Workers is something like a medically humanitarian version of Extreme Makeover. Chronically ill patients lacking money for new treatments that would rescue them are cured by leading specialists. (According to The New York Times, the producers sought out cases with a likely 90 percent success rate.) Well, there are worse things a reality show could attempt, right?
If only we were spared the interruptions of the two doctors and two nurses who act as a sort of HMO chorus for the show, narrating not only medical but emotional histories. Dr. Redmond Burke, a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon so good-looking he could play a brilliant physician if he weren't one already, is shown in the operating room vigilantly observing. In blue scrubs and with his tapered surgeon's fingers pressed together in tense concern, he suggests a very tall Mother Teresa.
Lifetime (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET)
I come from a small, conservative place where my dreams of high school cheerleading could never have been fulfilled. Watching this eight-week series makes me realize that it's probably just as well. The pressure would have been crushing. The pompoms would have shattered in my hands like champagne flutes.
The title promises some camp fun along the lines of Bring It On or The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, but the first installment of Cheerleader Nation indicates that this is a series that won't condescend. It's earnest and fair. It accepts at face value the not insignificant terrors and humiliations inherent in executing a back handspring before a crowd of judges. The series follows 22 girls on the cheerleading squad of Lexington, Ky.'s Dunbar High during nine months, as they pursue the school's third consecutive national championship. (If you can't wait to know the outcome, it's on the Web.) The most interesting dynamic so far is that of coach Donna Martin, a Katie Couric look-alike, and daughter Ryan. It'd be scary if Ryan were sis-boom-bah at home. She's not.
CBS (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET)
The Unit, about a secret special-forces squad and the wives they leave behind as they race around thwarting terrorists and such, was created by playwright-filmmaker David Mamet. It's his baby, yes sir, all punched-up and arrestingly off-kilter. The men talk at a humorless, steely clip, as if shooting out hollow cartridges instead of words. The women can seem like glassy-eyed, duty-obsessed Stepford wives. Episode 3 is the most striking, as the men (including Scott Foley and 24's Dennis Haysbert) are subjected to deadly POW conditions to test their strength. It's like Prison Break at Guantanamo Bay. For good or bad, this is a show with a mind of its own.
>What really matters on any given Sopranos season, of course, is who's gonna get whacked. But intriguing new faces always pass through. This time look out for former ER star Julianna Margulies as a real estate broker. And Ben Kingsley will honor us with one episode—as himself.
>Two and a Half Men (CBS, March 13, 9 p.m. ET) Jon Lovitz guest-stars as Charlie Sheen's archenemy.
Lil' Kim: Countdown to Lockdown (BET, Thursdays, 9:30 p.m. ET) Documentary series follows the rapper, now in prison, from her perjury conviction to the beginning of her yearlong sentence in Philadelphia.
E! News (E!, March 13, 7 p.m. ET) Ryan Seacrest becomes an idol of sorts as he assumes his duties as anchorman.
Blackbeard: Terror at Sea (National Geographic, March 12, 8 p.m. ET) James Purefoy (Rome) as one of the most notorious pirates of the Caribbean.
Top Chef (Bravo, March 15, 10 p.m. ET) Twelve chefs vie for a $100,000 prize in San Francisco in a new reality competition.
>POLICE WOMAN: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON ($49.95) Angie Dickinson shows off her legs and brains to equal advantage as peppy Pepper Anderson, L.A. undercover cop, in the 1974-78 series. Extras: In convivial commentary Dickinson recalls good times, long hours and '70s outfits. Series: [
] Extras: [
Nashville Star, the American Idol of country music, starts its fourth season on USA Network March 14 with two fresh hosts: old-school Wynonna Judd and new-school Cowboy Troy, the 6′5″ country rapper.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE A "NASHVILLE STAR"? Judd: We've got a mother with three kids. Then there's a guy who was in an accident and got his face shot. You don't have to be from a small Southern town. Who can be a star? Anyone. That is the American dream.
WHAT'S YOUR TAKE ON EACH OTHER? Troy: I'm relatively new to the entertainment industry. I'm going to be watching everything from Wynonna, with my pen and paper handy.
Judd: When we first met [at the Country Music Association Awards], I'm thinking, "What are the chances?" Here he is, this tall, black cowboy who raps. But it's where country music is headed.
HOW DOES THIS PAIRING COMPARE TO THE JUDDS? Judd: I don't have to do his hair. I did [my mother Naomi's] hair every night. They have portrayed me as being the motherly sister and Troy is this brother I never wanted.
Troy: I need all the help I can get.
Judd: And I will tell you the truth. I will tell you if you need a breath mint.
WOULD YOU EVER BE AS HARSH AS SIMON COWELL
? Judd: I would never say someone was fat. I would never say something that would make them want to give everything up. The business is so tough, they're going to get that anyway.
WHAT SHOWS DO YOU LIKE? Troy: Sports Center. I like to get up and watch Squawkbox on CNBC.
Judd: I just TiVo—you're going to laugh—Little House on the Prairie. It's for my daughter. That's what we're into now.
HBO (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET)