Livia dies, Meadow goes to college, and a ''Matrix'' star joins the Mob, says Justine Elias

By Justine Elias
Updated March 06, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: The Sopranos: Barry Wetcher/HBO

Here’s the scoop on ”The Sopranos”’ third season

On the second season finale of HBO’s ”The Sopranos,” mobster hero Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) whacked his onetime pal Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore), covered up a murder committed by his sister Janice (Aida Turturro), and learned that his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), was about to turn him in to the feds. Offscreen, things got even more complicated: The venerable Marchand, who’d been ill through many of her final scenes, died last June.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are some highlights from the third season premiere, Episodes 1 and 2, which aired back to back Sunday night.

The feds
The surveillance plan: Synchronize the Timex watches, sneak inside ”the Sausage Factory” (the FBI’s name for the Soprano house), and switch an old lamp in the basement (where Tony talks illegal business) with a bugged replica. Complication: the Soprano water heater explodes and floods the place. Though the FBI manages to plant the bugged lamp a few days later, they’re permitted to eavesdrop only every two minutes — meaning they’ll have to suffer through a lot of innocuous Soprano talk before they hit prosecutable paydirt.

Anthony Jr. and Meadow Soprano
Little A.J. (Robert Iler) has grown up into a surly skate punk and high school underachiever, while Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) is a studious freshman at Columbia. When she brings home an Afro Jewish boyfriend named Noah Tannenbaum (Patrick Tully) — a sophisticated Hollywood kid whose parents are in the film business — Tony is unspeakably rude to him behind her back. As Meadow discovers the depth of her father’s bigotry, it looks like Daddy’s little princess is on the verge of a full scale rebellion.

Christopher and Adriana
As Tony’s most trusted lieutenant and Carmela’s kin, Chris (Michael Imperioli) is next in line to be a made man. But nobody seems to notice that the young hothead is always stoned (cocaine and bong hits just to get through Livia’s funeral) and chronically short of cash due to huge gambling losses. Meanwhile, his flashy moll Adriana (Drea De Matteo) has been hitting the tennis courts in an orange halter top and short shorts — something that’s caught the eye of the feds (thanking the Bureau, no doubt, for those top of the line binoculars) and the new, touchy feely, ambidextrous tennis pro, Birgit (Erica Leerhsen). She better hope Christopher doesn’t find out.

The New Guy
A big ”Sopranos” welcome to the pride of Hoboken, Joe Pantoliano (”The Matrix”)! He joins the cast as garbage warrior Ralphie, cousin of the late Richie Aprile (Janice’s late, psychopathic fiancé). Tony warns Ralphie to stop burning out rival families’ garbage trucks, so instead, Ralphie beats the guy with a baseball bat. Watch out for him.

Tony and Carmela
What would this show be without a bizarre health crisis? Tony takes a bite of capacolla and passes out on the kitchen floor. What brought this on? More specifics in Episode 3, but for now, you should know that Tony’s anxious about reminders of his daughter’s loss of innocence (i.e., her friend Noah) and his own (the movie that Meadow and Noah were watching, ”Public Enemy,” is a clue to Tony’s self image — and his wished for relationship with his late mother). Maybe we should leave the analysis to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Another worry: Patsy Parisi, twin of Philip, whom Tony whacked, is acting weird — drinking, flashing a gun, and peeing in Tony’s pool.

Livia and Carmela
Marchand returned for one eerie scene (giving Tony hell, again), courtesy of some CG effects and outtakes. After she dies, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chiansese) is sentimental — ”What a f—– blow” — while Janice bitterly notes that mother Soprano threw away all her daughters’ childhood keepsakes but saved Tony’s varsity letters and book reports (i.e. ”Why ‘Fear Strikes Out’ by Jimmy Piersall is a Good Book, by Tony Soprano”). Carmela, as always, cuts through the B.S., saying the reason Livia didn’t want a memorial is because she thought nobody would show up. ”She knew there was a problem.”

As the episode ends, the mom we’re left with is not Tony’s but Cagney’s in ”Public Enemy”: She adored her gangster son no matter what he did. It’s a cinematic memory that moves Tony to tears — something that his own mother’s death could never do.

So, what did you think of ”The Sopranos” return? Take our poll that asks who’s gonna get whacked? And what’s with the capacolla?

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