One version of history would have had the story end there. Creator David Chase reportedly considered killing Livia off and ending the series. When the show proved a hit, and Chase signed on for three more years, things changed. "The Sopranos," unavoidably, became just another damn TV show. That it remained still the best, most challenging and ambitious show on TV didn't alleviate the letdown. The popular character Livia lived on, given an understandably deflated role owing to Marchand's real-life illness. Her role as Tony's antagonist was assumed by his estranged sister Janice (Aida Turturro), a flaky West Coastie who threatened to turn the series into yet another God help us "quirky drama." Numerous characters were added; some episodes meandered; others a trip to Italy, his nephew's flirtation with Hollywood were self-indulgent and untrue to the tone of the series. When it connected, especially in Tony's increasingly strained relations with his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and his moody son, it was fantastic. But sometimes, it wasn't much fun.
So it's strange to see the "third" season (HBO, debuts March 4, 9 p.m. ET) opening like the second one did. Not figuratively literally. Just like last year, we see Tony, dressed in his bathrobe, lumbering down his driveway to get the morning paper. The news is about him: a bloody turf war over the Mafia-run garbage-trucking business. The garbage war, we discover, is the new target of the long-running FBI investigation against him, and the Feds spend the taut first episode trying to plant a bug in Tony's basement the one place in his house where he talks business to the sound of the "Peter Gunn" theme mixed with the Police's "Every Breath You Take" (no TV series uses its soundtrack more wryly and effectively.)
Even as Tony Soprano's world has been expanding in the past year, the noose is tightening. It's a nifty reintroduction device: Because the gumshoes have to monitor the Sopranos' movements to get in and out of the house, we observe the family almost entirely from a distance, getting caught up with them at the same time. Tony's still dealing with, or avoiding, the guilt over the bloody way in which he's consolidated his power; daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) is at Columbia University, across the river; Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) is running with a bad crowd; and Carmela long-cheated-on Carmela is sublimating her feelings like a good suburban housewife, through tennis lessons. (We also follow the Sopranos' Polish maid, one of a growing cast of peripheral East Europeans Polish domestics, Russian strippers, Czech mobsters who provide a modern-day connection to the Italian Americans' immigrant past.)
It's a nifty device too, because it reminds you of the show's discomfiting ambiguity. You're rooting for a murderer as Feds try to nail him. (Don't leave the house, you idiots! Goddamnit, Carmela, drive faster! Catch them in the act!) And then you remember just who and what it is you're cheering for. In the second episode (airing back-to-back with the first), Tony finds Meadow in the living room watching a video (the mob movie "Public Enemy") for homework with Noah Tannenbaum, a half-black, half-Jewish guy from her dorm; Tony pulls Noah aside and, smiling, tells the "charcoal briquet" to stay away from his daughter.
Afterward, Carmela finds Tony passed out on the floor (he's had another of his panic-attack blackouts) and he tells her the story. The way Chase handles the scene shows how this series is in a league above anything else on TV. On a network show even in the heyday of "All in the Family" Tony's wife would have to be a sympathetic counterbalance, the tolerant peacemaker. But Chase and Falco don't let Carm off the hook: She subtly betrays that she's not entirely comfortable with her daughter dating a black man either, nor is she comfortable saying how she does feel. She tells Tony not to "make things worse. Keep playing the race card and you'll drive her right into his arms." (Likewise, Noah, who by the TV race-drama playbook would be a paragon of civility, is a pretentious ass.) There's no easy refuge for the viewer. It's not nice, it's not comforting, but it involves you powerfully.
(SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS TO LIVIA, STOP READING HERE.)