'The Sopranos' Returns With Arresting Developments

'The Sopranos' | Anna Nicole Smith

'The Sopranos' Returns With Arresting Developments

Good news: "The Sopranos" is back. Last night I had a chance to see the first episodes of the final season.

Bad news: It's the final season. There are only nine episodes, and the first two, while terrific in every sense, only foreshadow a little of what may come before the last shot is heard.

Next Tuesday night, about 2,500 people will jam into Radio City Music Hall to see these first two shows. But last night, HBO hosted a smallish affair at the Museum of Modern Art for movers and shakers to get the buzz going.

None of the show's cast members were there, but Glenn Close, Sam Rockwell, Charlie Rose, New York Times editor Bill Keller, Time Inc. editorial director John Huey, Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes, Hearst Publications' Ellen Levine, writer Stanley Crouch, talk show host Donny Deutsch, Danny Bennett (who manages Dad, Tony) all were, along with show creator David Chase, executive producer Ilene Landress and writers Terry Winter and Matthew Weiner.

So is it good? That's all anyone wants to know. The answer is: It's great. You can't do any better than "The Sopranos" on TV and often in film. And this time around, Chase and co. -- knowing the end is near -- do not disappoint.

The first episode, as someone described it, is like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Tony and Carmela drive to sister Janice and brother-in-law Bobby's lake house in upstate New York for Tony's birthday weekend.

The four characters are pretty much it for the show, but what transpires and what's revealed are major points that recall the past and should help write the future.

And here's one little spoiler: Tony is arrested for something that seems minor. That's all I can say. Oh yes, and there's a bloody beating and a hit.

The second episode brings in just about the entire cast as Christopher's horror movie, made with Tony's money, is finally unveiled. The premiere of "Cleaver" includes a rare moment when most of the ensemble (save Dr. Melfi) shows up for the premiere.

Writer Winter described it last night as "like the cover of Sgt. Pepper" as the camera pans the "Cleaver" audience and we see people we haven't seen in a long time.

The second part of Episode 2 concerns the tragic death of a main character. I won't say who it is, but it's not Uncle Junior.

The surprise is that director-writer-producer-actor Sydney Pollack turns up in a decent-sized cameo and nearly steals the show in the process. Look out for another cameo by actor Christopher McDonald as Christopher's AA sponsor.

In the end, though, what steals "The Sopranos" are the Sopranos. The writing is impeccable with lots of little gems, including malapropisms from Ray Abruzzo as Carmine (he calls a beautiful box "mellifluous"), non-sequitur quotes from Blood, Sweat & Tears by "poet" Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) and the earnest assertion from Carmela that "Tony is not a vindictive man."

The acting in the show is also beyond anything else on TV. Obviously, the three main leads -- James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco and Edie Falco -- are a pleasure. But Episode 1 allows Aida Turturro and Steve Schirrippa to really shine.

And Episode 2 is full of revelations, including stunning work by Vince Curatola and Frank Vincent. The latter gets a speech about his character's family name (Leotardo) that is simply priceless. And Curatola has some magnificent elegant stuff as exiting New York boss Johnny Sack.

So, stay tuned. The end of "The Sopranos" could turn out to be a bloody mess, particularly if hints of trouble between Tony and Christopher are played out.

Personally, I would like to see the final scene of the show be between Tony and Dr. Melfi, having yet another unfulfilling session in her office. But all the show's players are tight-lipped, even as the final episode is still being filmed, written and directed by Chase.

Whatever the end brings, rest assured, that with syndication and DVDs, "The Sopranos" will never really be over.

Anna Nicole's Drugs: More, More, More

What else was Anna Nicole Smith taking last winter, and who gave it to her?

Some of that was answered by our pal, Dr. Khristine Eroshevich, on TV Monday night. This column had already reported that Dr. Eroshevich had ordered methadone, Dilaudid, Ativan, Dalmane and a British drug called Prexige, all muscle relaxers and painkillers, for Smith.

But the doctor volunteered some more info on TV. She added to the mix Paxil, Robaxin, Topamax, morphine, Cipro, Valium and chloral hydrate.

How she got it to the Bahamas and why she thought Anna Nicole needed all this remains Dr. Eroshevich's call. But she did say in her "exclusive" interview with "Entertainment Tonight" that she administered it all herself.

And what of these added drugs? Chloral hydrate, for example, is used by veterinarians to calm their patients. One description says: "An overdose is marked by confusion, convulsions, nausea and vomiting, severe drowsiness, slow and irregular breathing, cardiac arrhythmia and weakness. It may also cause liver damage. It is moderately addictive." Topamax is anti-convulsant. Valium and Paxil we know about.

Smith's toxicology report is taking a long time, and maybe now we know why. It should be interesting to see how much if any of this stuff turns up in her blood. No wonder she seemed so stoned during her "Entertainment Tonight" interviews right before her death. It's amazing that she was awake long enough to sign the releases.