Tony's back - but will he end up getting 'whacked'?
Call it mob justice. Millions of fans of America' s most popular mafia drama will finally get their way tonight when The Sopranos returns to the country's television screens after a two-year absence.
Many feared the hit show had disappeared to sleep with the fishes after the last episode ended in June 2004 with mob boss Tony Soprano fleeing into the woods to escape the FBI.
Now, as the long-awaited sixth and final season begins, the biggest question is whether New Jersey's favourite mafioso will himself be the last victim of a 'whacking' at the hands of others tired of his years of cheating, stealing and double-dealing.
Pundits say there could be no more fitting conclusion to one of the most phenomenally successful shows in television history.
'Not only does Tony have to die, he has to be delivered straight into the hands of the devil,' said Bob Thompson, director of the Centre for the Study of Popular Television at New York's Syracuse University.
'He had the opportunity for denunciation. In the very first episode came the realisation that he could have reformed, but he didn't. I can't see the writers putting him in Florida 20 years from now living with an enlarged prostate and picking retirement cheques out of his mailbox.'
The adventures of Tony Soprano and the two dysfunctional families in his life - the one at home and the other his partners in organised crime - have kept audiences captivated over five seasons and 65 episodes since the pilot episode aired back in January 1999.
Average audiences peaked at more than 12.5 million during the fourth season in 2002, and the show won four Emmy awards and five Golden Globes for HBO, the subscription channel that makes it.
Actors James Gandolfini, who plays Tony, and Edie Falco, Tony's long-suffering wife Carmela, have become household names and a whole new lexicon has entered the annals of American pop culture, including Bada-Bing, after the show's infamous strip club, and 'fuhgedaboutit', a thinly veiled warning to look the other way.
Over the years the show's popularity has spawned dozens of fan websites, a coach tour of New Jersey locations where it is filmed and even a range of Sopranos cookbooks with favourite Italian-American recipes. Another honour came last week when actor Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle 'Junior' Soprano, was invited to celebrate the launch of the final season by ringing the opening bell at the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York's Times Square.
The hype surrounding the new season, which TVB Pearl is expected to run within a few months, has allayed any fears that the lengthy wait has put people off the show. Hal Boedeker, television critic of the Orlando Sentinel, was among journalists invited to a special screening of the first four episodes and believes that the writers and directors put the time to good use in crafting new storylines.
'The Sopranos is as good as television gets,' he said. 'A 21-month wait for new episodes would doom most series. But Sopranos creator David Chase has earned the right to work at his own pace, and when the results are this splendid, you don't complain.'
Even so, some are still concerned that once the 12-part series is under way, followed by a final handful of 'bonus' episodes next spring, ratings could drop as quickly as a police informer thrown in the water in pair of concrete boots.
'I wonder if HBO might be in for a ratings let-down,' said business writer Paul La Monica in a column on cnnmoney.com.
'A lot has changed on Sunday nights since June 2004. Tony and his crew return to find that Sunday night belongs to Desperate Housewives, a phenomenon that has averaged more than 25 million viewers this season, according to Nielsen.'
Those same Nielsen Media Ratings recorded that more than 1.5 million viewers turned off The Sopranos after its record run in 2002, leaving an average of 11 million for the 2004 season, a worrying trend given that the show goes head to head with Desperate Housewives tonight.
But Professor Thompson says HBO won't be putting out a contract on their star attraction. 'They couldn't care less about ratings,' he said. 'They're not selling attention spans here like the commercial channels have to do. As long as there's plenty of buzz about the show and people are buying subscriptions, HBO is happy enough.'
Also happy are the owners of On Location Tours of New York, who reports that its weekend bus tours of notorious Sopranos sites such as Bada Bing, Satriale's Pork Shop and the Skyway Diner are attracting a flood of new interest.
'It was a long wait for everybody,' said marketing director Cathy Wilkie. 'People would take the tour because they missed it and because they wanted to relive their favourite scenes.'