"Sopranos" finale begins on downbeat note

Actor James Gandolfini in a scene from "The Sopranos" in a photo courtesy of HBO. The first of the final nine episodes of the show aired on Sunday. REUTERS/Handout

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - And so begins the last dance of the wiseguys. HBO’s “The Sopranos” has been one of television’s true monuments, a masterpiece of grand artistic vision and extraordinary performance.

Part of its legacy will certainly be its glorious inconsistency, which one can also see as experimentation -- like the episode last season during which Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) imagined his life as an everyday salesman during a protracted dream sequence as he hovered between life and death with a gunshot wound.

Creator David Chase has never stopped pushing the creative envelope, and he isn’t about to start now as the show launches its final nine (really this time) episodes that cap eight years of some of the most memorable drama we’re ever likely to see on this or any other planet.

That the opening two stanzas supplied for review carry an especially bittersweet, downbeat edge should surprise us not at all. Chase and Co. are lulling us into a state of complacency. Everything’s winding down, you see. But I don’t trust it, and neither should you. This series has proved expert at screwing with our heads, and already I’m feeling screwed with anew. The early point of this swan song seems to be that these people are walking, talking anachronisms who don’t seem to yet realize that their time has passed. That naivete is poised to tango with the usual dark comedy as “Sopranos” shuffles off into the sunset.

As we pick up this second half of the final season -- I think that’s what they’re calling it -- Tony still is on the mend from his brush with death after having been shot by the dementia-laden Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese). But the opening hour is eerily quiet, one that leaves us quivering with anxiety. Tony and wife Carmela (Edie Falco) accompany his embattled sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and henpecked brother-in-law Bobby (Steven R. Schirripa) on a weekend retreat to the Adirondacks that’s filled with Monopoly, karaoke -- and one memorable interfamilial brawl. Also in the mix now is the ongoing preoccupation of Tony’s nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) with Hollywood and his new mob-funded slasher movie, for which he unsuccessfully tried to recruit Ben Kingsley.

That engrossing first hour is brilliantly low key, written by Diane Frolov, Andrew Schneider, Matthew Weiner and Chase and directed by Tim Van Patten. In the second hour (airing April 15, penned by Terence Winter and directed by Alan Taylor), Tony is suddenly disturbed that a character based on him behaves like such a thug in Christopher’s flick. And as this plays out, there’s the inglorious death of the once-volatile Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) from cancer while in prison. It features a sprightly turn by director Sydney Pollack as an orderly convicted of murdering his wife and others.

Both episodes seem to set an especially gloomy tone, one that appears to be Chase’s way of setting us up for the inevitable “crime doesn’t pay, look what happens to all of these poor saps” message. But again, if we have learned anything from this man and this show, it is that we should be braced to expect the unexpected.

“Sopranos” looks to be taking us on one of its darkest journeys yet en route to the finish line, setting a tantalizing table for the forthcoming climax.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter