Same Old Song

I shrink, therefore I am: Lorraine Bracco and James Gandolfini in the season opener of The Sopranos.Photo: Abbot Genser

In the first hour of the fifth season of The Sopranos (Sundays, starting March 7; 9 to 10 p.m.; HBO), a big brown bear shows up several nights running in Tony’s backyard in bucolic New Jersey, scaring A.J. and Carmela. Tony, of course, has been rusticating elsewhere. He will send a flunky to stand guard. But finally he must go himself. And the next time the bear appears, there is an equally ursine Soprano waiting for him in a lounge chair beside the swimming pool.

You will perhaps remember the wild ducks in that swimming pool in the first hour of the first season of The Sopranos. I spent a lot of time back then, the winter of 1999, trying to construe duck symbolism. What, if anything, did Henrik Ibsen have to do with the stress-related fainting spells of a middle-management mafioso and waste-management consultant? But all of us were younger then. I don’t have time now to track bears back to Faulkner—or, more to the point, to Melville, who wrote of Ahab: “He lived in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled Missouri. And when as Spring and Summer had departed, that wild Logan of the woods, burying himself in the hollow of a tree, lived out the winter there, sucking his own paws; so, in his inclement, howling old age, Ahab’s soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom!”

Paw-sucking sullenness is the weather report for season five. All those mafiosi who went to prison on RICO convictions in the eighties are coming home and looking for work. A few, like Steve Buscemi, want to go straight. (He opts for massage therapy.) Most, like Robert Loggia, wouldn’t know how. (Loggia, who is always fun to watch, hasn’t had such a juicy part since Anne Parillaud turned him into the very first mob vampire in Innocent Blood.) Carmela, between meetings of her film club, sees altogether too much of David Strathairn, A.J.’s high-school guidance counselor, who gives her a copy of Madame Bovary. Meadow rents a video of Frida. Tony camps out at his dead mother’s house, where the guys feel free to fart a lot. (No wonder Dr. Melfi won’t date him.) In the four new hours I’ve seen, there are so-so jokes about Opus Dei and Citizen Kane and a very funny one about a Prince of Tides detergent with Barbra Streisand as the shrink.

What there isn’t is a compelling reason to spend any more time among wiseguys with a chemical dependency on olive oil, roadkill, and Frank Sinatra.

Wheelchairs and gurneys hurtle down shape-shifting corridors under flickering fluorescent lights, past floor waxers and CT scans, through electric-eye doors to garagelike operating rooms where repair work seems less likely than dismemberment. Inspired by The Kingdom, a 1994 Lars von Trier mini-series for Danish television in which crazy doctors, sadistic nurses, assorted sex maniacs, and psychic patients wandered around a Copenhagen hospital in a brown fog, Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital (Wednesday, March 3, 9 to 11 p.m.; Wednesdays thereafter, 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC) has relocated to creepy Maine, added dead children and guilty secrets that go back to the Civil War, mixed in a guardian angel who looks like an anteater on steroids, and ordained the hit-and-run injury and miraculous resurrection of a “famous artist” (Jack Coleman), who had been out jogging when a minivan left him for dead and the crows.

“Paw-sucking sullenness is the weather forecast. Tony camps out at his dead mother’s house, where the guys feel free to fart a lot.”

Andrew McCarthy is one of the doctors at this hospital that used to be a mill before it burned down with a score of sweatshop children still inside. So far, he’s a good guy. Whereas Bruce Davison, his colleague, is arrogant and awful. Ed Begley Jr. is their Silly Putty administrator, intended perhaps to remind us of an earlier hospital for black comedy, St. Elsewhere. Diane Ladd is a regular patient, as hypochondriacal as she is telepathic, booking herself in as if by Ticketmaster to a matinee. But she is not the only one who hears weeping in the shaft of Elevator No. 2. And I haven’t mentioned the singing surgeons, the German shepherd who thinks with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent, the game show where a wrong answer means electroshock, and the Down syndrome siblings in the cafeteria, who may be capable of earthquakes.

Obviously, as in Dreamcatcher, King is still working through his own accident of several years ago. If he has already taught us that spark plugs, cell phones, garbage disposals, wind chimes, toilet stalls, and topiary hedges are waiting in ambush, as well as sewers, kennels, car parks, Cujos, and clowns, imagine the fear factor of syringes and locked wards. At least Jack Coleman will emerge from his coma with the ability to talk to the dead. And exactly what the dead want from him—a sort of dispossessing—is what the weekly series proposes to discover. The format seems ideal for King to dress up old obsessions in new clothes—growing up and growing old; spousal abuse and child molestation; poverty and alcoholism; repressed memory and precognition; secret shame and bottled rage; grief, celebrity, suicide, hypocrisy, cancer, magic, technology, randomness, occult powers, other worlds, sacred quests, cannibalism, and “slippage.”

I yield to no one in my admiration for Tom Fontana, whether we are talking about Homicide: Life on the Street or Oz. And considering the sadomasochism of The Gospel According to Gibson, we ought to be grateful for a biblical gloss with more on its mind than blood libel. But Judas (Monday, March 8; 9 to 11 p.m.; ABC), written and executive-produced by Fontana, flabbergasts. It’s not that I have a problem with a hippie peacenik Jesus (Jonathan Scarfe) who disappoints a ferocious rebel Judas (Johnathon Schaech), while Pharisee Caiaphas (Bob Gunton) and ignoble Roman Pilate (Tim Matheson) try to trick each other into taking the blame for the dirty deed, and Flavius (Owen Teale) feels bad for everybody. It’s just that the way these people are forced to speak should explain why King James needed a Bible committee in the first place.

Especially Matheson’s Pilate. We hear him ask Flavius: “What in the name of sweet Minerva is a messiah?” And say, about Jesus: “Just what I need—another rabble-rouser!” And, about Lazarus and such: “Raising the dead! Great! All I need are dead Jews strutting around!” And finally, to his sexy wife: “If I kill him, there’ll be trouble, and I’ll be on my way to Albania.” On the other hand, when he isn’t teaching us the Lord’s Prayer or delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Scarfe’s Jesus isn’t much better. About the Pharisees, he says: “I don’t need these old men to validate who I am.”

Concert for George (March 3; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is much friendlier than these pious occasions tend to be, with the late ex-Beatle chatted about but mostly sung by such buddies as Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, and Billy Preston. Ravi Shankar is on hand, and so is the gorgeous Anoushka Shankar, as well as members of Monty Python. Highlights include “Here Comes the Sun,” “Something,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” There is so little posturing attitude at the Royal Albert Hall that you wonder if rock music really needs any of it—if the couture and surliness couldn’t just go back where they belong, which is pro wrestling.

Jane Goodall’s Return to Gombe (March 8; 8 to 9 p.m.; Animal Planet) follows the primatologist back to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, where only 120 chimps remain. Even Frodo, the longtime dominant alpha male, is feeling poorly and lying low. We are encouraged to root for a newborn pair of twins, before Jane goes back to her very own dark continent, the lecture circuit.

Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin (March 3; 8 to 10:15 p.m.; TCM) is the very same Richard Schickel documentary that opened a couple of weeks ago in your neighborhood art house, a model of the genre, in which we see genius as well as hear about it from Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Claire Bloom, Johnny Depp, and—I kid you not—Marcel Marceau.

Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of ‘Charlie’s Angels’ (March 8; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC) should contribute some historical perspective to any discussion of Janet Jackson and Nipplegate, but I can’t see why anyone would otherwise want to sit still for a docudrama about jiggle in which such network-TV heavyweights as Fred Silverman (Dan Lauria) and Aaron Spelling (Dan Castellaneta) are as self-important and as foolish onscreen as they were off it.

Same Old Song