New cousin is tuning up for Sopranos'
Plain Dealer Television Critic
Hollywood - When last seen, way back in December 2002, New Jersey gangster Tony Soprano had been rocked by the collapse of his marriage. Tony and Carmela went splits- ville in spectacular fashion, all right, but, ever since, it has been the show's mob of devoted fans suffering from separation anxiety.
Although the last original episode of "The Sopranos" might have aired more than a year ago, the drama's devotees hardly have been able to just fuhgeddaboutit. Well, the zing missing from their lives soon will return with a bang and bada-bing.
The acclaimed HBO series about crime boss Tony will begin its much-anticipated fifth season at 9 p.m. Sunday, March 7. David Chase, the show's creator and executive producer, promises that the patience of "Sopranos" fans will be rewarded.
"I've always looked at this show as really trying to give people a lot of bang for their buck, because it's not free, people have to pay" for HBO, Chase told TV critics gathered for their semiannual meetings with network and cable producers, programmers, stars and executives.
"I've always tried to cram the show just off this humor, suspense, violence, sex, great rock 'n' roll music, cinematography . . . just cram it as tight as we can and have it be almost bursting with stuff."
To make sure that the fifth season will reach the bursting point, Chase has cast Steve Buscemi as Tony Blundetto, a gangster getting out of prison.
"The kicking-off point for the fifth season is based on an article that I read in the Newark Star-Ledger about the highly publicized RICO [racketeering] cases of [the] '80s," Chase said. "They put a lot of guys away back then. It was when they really broke the back of the Mafia, is what they said. And I read that a lot of those guys are now getting out of jail.
"They've served their time and they are hitting the streets again, so the season begins with what we call the Mafia, the class of 2004, hitting the streets. That's the departure point."
Blundetto "is one of the guys. He's Tony's cousin, on his mother's side, and they were sort of partners in crime 18 years ago."
Buscemi has made his bones in the "Sopranos" family as a director. Now he has a choice role.
But remember what happened to Ralphie, the fiery character played last season by Joe Pantoliano? Joey Pants lost his job when Ralphie lost his head - literally. Will Tony Blundetto survive the fifth season? "I keep my head, if that's what you're getting at," Buscemi said jokingly.
While it might seem like a crime that the wait for the fifth season has been so long, there are plenty of reasons for "Sopranos" fans to stop singing their sad song. The mob drama's 13 new episodes will be packed with appearances by such guest stars as Robert Loggia, Polly Bergen, Joe Santos, David Strathairn, Frank Vincent, Tim Daly, Patty D'Arbanville and Four Seasons lead singer Frankie Valli.
High on the story agenda, though, will be the ruins of the Sopranos' marriage. For James Gandolfini, who saw the collapse of his own marriage played out in headlines, this has been particularly tough emotional territory.
"Having gone through something similar personally, it was a little difficult to have to dredge those things up sometimes," said Gandolfini, who has won three Emmys for playing troubled Tony. "But in terms of acting, anything that's huge and just makes you dig real deep is always . . . going to just take you to places that you haven't been before. And sometimes it was hard. It was very difficult some of those days to do some of those things and to continue into it."
Chase long maintained that the fifth season would be the last for "The Sopranos." The writer-producer changed his tune last year when he realized there were more stories to tell. So there will be a 10-episode sixth season, he says, and that will be it.
"I'm not ready to say goodbye to the character, but I'm not going to miss him," Gandolfini said. "Does that make sense? I want to end this the right way, and I know Mr. Chase has something in mind, and I trust him completely. So he said 10 more episodes in the sixth year. That's what we need, and I said, Fine, and I will do everything I can. But when it's over the right way, I'll see you later.' "