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FROM THIS EPISODE

All Due Respect

This is Associated Press TV Writer Frazier Moore Watching Television for KCRW, and, in particular, watching The Sopranos, which lately has sunk into an existential malaise that, to be honest, is bringing me down too.

The current season began splendidly from the first scene, with an FBI agent cracking wise to his partner, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." But since then, the show has overestimated my taste for watching characters who are in a funk. As we meander toward the season finale, I feel about the show like Tony Soprano pondering his life: "Is this all there is?"

I wrote back in March, "This Sopranos season looks to be the strongest, most penetrating yet." I had previewed the first four of the total dozen episodes, and they packed a punch. Tony (played by James Gandolfini) was gunned down by his delusionally senile uncle. In the hospital near death, he fought for his life, and, comatose, wrestled with his demons in vividly conceived fantasies.

By the fifth week, when Tony returned home, his physical recovery seemed assured. But his emotional recovery -- well, that drags on with opaqueness and uncertainty. You call this penetrating stuff? It's internalized and murky and seldom coming up for air.

Please understand that since my first glimpse of this HBO series at its January 1999 premiere, I was hooked. And I've seen all 76 episodes till now, savoring most of them more than once.

Even so, I stop short of thinking The Sopranos can do no wrong.

I lost patience once before, a couple of seasons ago. I had sat through too many weeks of narrative listlessness. Then came Ralphie Cifaretto's breakfast brawl with Tony. In that terribly satisfying episode, you may remember, Ralphie's head got stashed in his own bowling bag.

This season's too-much-of-a-nuisance-to-live version of Ralphie has been Vito, the mobster captain whose exposure as a gay man telegraphed his eventual demise. Weeks ago, he skipped town and found refuge in a picturesque village while shacking up with a volunteer fireman. And yet, he missed crime and he missed making money. He slipped back to New Jersey, bent on resuming his old career while somehow making everyone forget his disgrace. No way. On the most recent episode, he was beaten to death in his seedy motel room.

But the Vito story line never lived up to its tragic potential. And Vito's execution was, by Sopranos standards, disappointingly swift and prosaic: caning with pool cues for just a few seconds. Where was the dramatic payoff?

Be assured I haven't given up on the show, or abandoned hope that the finale -- which premieres at 9pm Sunday and, of course, was unavailable for preview -- will knock us viewers out.

And I'm still looking ahead to the eight and-that's-all-folks episodes to come.

But it seems like precious time has been wasted this season without aiming us toward a final destination, a transcendent resolution that will do this great series justice.

"In the end, all of it just gets washed away," wife Carmela sobbed during a recent trip to Paris to cheer herself up. Oh, is everyone on The Sopranos in the dumps?

Maybe that's the lesson the show is building to: In the end, nothing matters. But if so, it's wrong. The Sopranos matters, and always has. I hope it remembers how to act like that again. All due respect, it seems overdue.

Watching Television for KCRW, this is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore.

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