Picks and Pans Review: The Sopranos

updated 03/15/2004 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/15/2004 01:00AM

HBO (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET)

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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

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