Has the series gone downhill this season? Somewhat, says Bruce Fretts, as Artie Bucco and Gloria Trillo confront suicide in the Steve Buscemi-directed episode ''Everybody Hurts''

By Bruce Fretts
Updated October 18, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
James Gandolfini, The Sopranos
Credit: Sopranos: Barry Wetcher

Has the series gone downhill this season?

The ”Sopranos” backlash is in full swing — and not just among the Italian-American anti-defamation activists who forced New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to cancel his plans to march with costars Dominic Chianese and Lorraine Bracco in the Columbus Day parade. Internet message boards have become increasingly crowded with grumblings like, ”We waited a year and a half for THIS?” Even ”Daily Show” wiseguy Jon Stewart recently made a crack about how this season hasn’t been all that scintillating.

Of course, the show still has its die-hard fans who’ll defend it against anyone who dares criticize such an Important Work of Art. Me, I fall somewhere in the middle. The season has been a bit of a letdown so far — but it’s still better than almost anything else on TV.

Take the Oct. 20 episode, ”Everybody Hurts.” It was penned by Michael ”Christopher Moltisanti” Imperioli, who was responsible for this season’s nadir, the Columbus-obsessed debacle ”Christopher.” But it was directed by Steve Buscemi, who shot one of my favorite ”Sopranos” stand-alones, last season’s snowbound dark comedy ”Pine Barrens.” Not surprisingly, ”Everybody Hurts” was a hit-or-miss affair.

Suicide was the episode’s theme, as it is of the R.E.M. song that inspired the title (that tune wasn’t heard, but music editor Kathryn Dayak did make effective use of tracks by Billy Joel and Nick Lowe). Tony was distressed to learn — from Carmela, of all people — that his emotionally unstable ex-mistress, Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra, who reappeared in a dreamy cameo) had hanged herself.

Tony confronted their joint therapist, Dr. Melfi (Bracco, finally given something to do again), about why she hadn’t told him when it happened. Eventually, Tony made a donation to a suicide hotline in Gloria’s name, but he still seemed haunted by her memory. Moral of the story: Don’t date people you meet in your shrink’s waiting room.

Meanwhile, restaurateur Artie Bucco was driven to a suicide attempt after his French hostess’ brother failed to repay him a $50G loan — money that Artie had borrowed from Tony. The spectacle of a schlub like Artie putting on a black leather jacket and trying to act like a loan shark (and getting his earring ripped out by a Frenchman in the process) was deliciously tragicomic. In the end, Tony secretly forgave Artie — and Furio payed a presumably fatal visit to Frenchy.

Less successful were subplots about A.J.’s embarrassingly rich new girlfriend (did he really expect his sister to lend him her dorm room for sex?), Carmela’s crush on Furio (why did she set him up with her hygienist?), and Christopher’s heroin habit (would Tony really pick such an obvious smackhead as his heir apparent?). The myriad unadvanced storylines included Adriana’s snitch work, Uncle Junior’s trial, and Ralphie’s death threat against Janice.

Maybe all these dangling threads will be brilliantly tied up in the upcoming weeks; after all, we’re not even halfway through the season yet. In the meantime, while it’s still great, ”The Sopranos” ain’t quite as great as it used to be. That may be painful to admit, but like the song says, everybody hurts sometimes.

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