The Sopranos: Barry Wetcher
March 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Six burning questions about ”The Sopranos”

It only seems like it’s starting off slowly. That’s because David Chase, and everybody else working on HBO’s ”The Sopranos” (Sundays, 9 p.m.), has the confidence to draw in long strokes. They introduce characters whose import won’t be apparent for three of four episodes down the line. They plant plot seeds that won’t bud until May. They drop little lines of overheard dialogue that will echo back at the end of the season.

The reason it seems slightly discomfiting is that this approach is unheard of in television — hell, in all of pop culture, which worships, and is commercially predicated upon, the immediate wham bam thank you ma’am. The closest analogy for ”The Sopranos” I can think of is the 19th century serialized novels that Charles Dickens and his peers used to crank out, each biweekly installment bristling with outsize characters and event.

The delighted surprise that many viewers experienced during the ”Sopranos” first season — as they stumbled willy nilly upon a series more cleverly written and deeply characterized than anything else on the tube — was replaced in the second season by a certain disappointment, as Chase and company tried to figure how to keep the juggling act going for the long haul. It’s true that you can only discover something once, but it’s also true that last season’s ”Sopranos” episodes, while individually engaging, felt a little static.

The timing is right, then, for the third season to come back with a bada bing. Not only are all those folks who didn’t feel like ponying up for HBO now experiencing the first season on video and DVD, but the long hiatus between seasons two and three has recharged both creators and audience. Yeah, the ”Sopranos” episodes last Sunday night started slowly — but also (and with one exception) with confidence. This is one epic novel I’m looking forward to savoring, if only to resolve certain questions:

What the hell was the really most sincerely whacked Big Pussy doing reflected in the mirror during Livia’s funeral?
Is this David Chase’s way of keeping actor Vinny Pastore on the payroll for another year? Or will Puss be haunting Tony like some big bellied ghost of rubouts past?

Will Svetlana stay on the show, even if she’s out of a job?
Livia’s caregiver was among the most arresting characters in the debut episodes: a thoughtful, tough, kindhearted looker with a lurching gait and a 10 pack a day habit. Actress Alla Kliouka made Svetlana such a fully lived in person in such little screen time that it’d be a shame to send her packing. Even if Janice (Aida Turturro) wants her gone.

Speaking of Janice, how come she’s much more interesting this season?
Admit it, Tony’s little sister was a major pill last season — if only because her subplot seemed to be crowding out those involving Livia (Nancy Marchand) and Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Livia has passed on, though, and Melfi looks like she’s back in the picture — and here comes Janice, much more richly funny in the way she veers between crunchy California sensitivity and pitbull avarice. Maybe we just had to warm to her.

Will Chase make the mistake of revivifying Livia more than once?
Here’s hoping he doesn’t: While the computer tricks that allowed the deceased Marchand to appear in ”new” scenes with costar Gandolfini may mark an advance in special effects technology, they played like a Disney animatronic act gone wrong. In each shot, Livia had a different hairstyle, a different housedress, different lighting, different angles. I understand Chase’s need for closure, but what was intended as an homage came off as gruesome exploitation in practice.

Will Anthony Junior (Robert Iler) evolve into a character in his own right?
All signs point to yes — and it’s about time. The kid’s been the one cipher in this gang of megalomaniacs, and I, for one, have always wanted to know what he’s thinking.

Will Adriana (Drea De Matteo) really be getting it on with perky tennis pro Birgit (Erica Leerhsen)?
Beats me, but just the notion of boyfriend Christopher’s reaction to the discovery has me chortling in evil glee.

Any questions hanging over you? Post ’em here.

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