The Chicago Syndicate: Sopranos Expand Empire

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sopranos Expand Empire

Friends of ours: Soprano Crime Family

So "The Sopranos" is finally available on basic cable.

As Tony S. might put it in his new A&E vocabulary, it's about freakin' time.

The Emmy-winning Mafia saga is one of two HBO dramas coming to basic cable this week. The second is the less-heralded but often brilliant "The Wire," which starts its own run on BET the same night.

No doubt the formidable crime series, with its blunt language and seething violence, also will be cleaned up to meet the tighter standards of basic cable, but BET did not provide edited screeners.

A&E did, however, send along edited versions of two early episodes, which I'm glad to say suffer very little from the editing.

This is mostly because - like HBO's "Sex and the City," now enjoying a profitable, if slightly primmer, afterlife on TBS and in syndication - "The Sopranos" is produced with a collection of alternative shots and tidied-up dialogue loops for later use.

Where bleeps and blurs would be intrusive or even ridiculous, mobsters who seem overly fond of the epithet "jerk" and cameras that avert their gaze from the strippers at the Bada Bing club are the mildest of annoyances.

If anything, losing the obscenity, the occasional nudity and some of the gore only emphasizes how much else this extraordinary series has in its arsenal.

In the seven years since "The Sopranos" debuted, I'd forgotten some of the power of its early episodes: Tony's doomed attempts to reconcile with his epically awful mother (Nancy Marchand); the increasingly bizarre cast his dreams take on after he starts therapy; daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) showing kid brother A.J. (Robert Iler) the crime-watch Web site confirming that their cushy lives have little to do with the waste management business.

One reason that a few words snipped out of the series here and there hardly matter is that the rest of them are so richly colorful.

Who cares if A&E viewers won't get to hear what one of Tony's lieutenants disdainfully calls Starbuck's? They'll still get to listen in on conversations about children and parents, sex and psychoanalysis, Hasidism and the History Channel, God and "The Godfather," plus enough discourse about bracciole, grappa, osso buco and agita to send them to a Web site or an Italian-American friend.

A&E has promised to run the episodes at or near their original length, with minimal editing for violent or sexual content. That's good news for those who want to see the series relatively intact, but it also means that viewers who are easily upset may still want to give "The Sopranos" a wide berth.

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