That gamble is most apparent in the rupture of the relationship that formed the spine of the first season, the tangled ties between capo Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and monstrous matriarch Livia (Nancy Marchand), whose betrayal makes Tony's estrangement a logical response. Filling that vacuum, however, is prodigal sister Janice (Aida Turturro), whose New Age flakiness never successfully conceals her underlying calculation and opportunism. Soprano's relationship with therapist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) also frays during early episodes, as she struggles with escalating doubts about her mobbed-up patient. At home, Tony contends with wife Carmela's ruthless ambitions on behalf of college-bound Meadow, as well as son Anthony Jr.'s sullen adolescent flirtation with existentialism--the sort of touch that the show handles with a smart mix of sympathy and amusement.
Without spoiling the surprise of the season's climactic last episode, it's worth noting that only on The Sopranos could we expect a scene that sets up a mob hit with a perversely funny touch of magic realism--a talking fish, lying on a fishmonger's iced display, speaking with the voice of the victim. It's a touch at once morbid and goofy, and consistent with the show's undimmed brilliance. --Sam Sutherland