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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Sopranos' reclaims its territory atop TV

Tony and the gang return, as dazzling and dark as ever

Last year, a lot of impatient viewers threatened to lose interest in ''The Sopranos" upon its return, which is Sunday night. But if you decide to snub this HBO series, you'll only be punishing yourself. Twenty-one months after Tony tramped home through the snow like a black bear, the show is back in magnificent form, with all its humor, psychological thorniness, and bleak tragedy intact. It remains the highest peak of series TV, a star above what currently passes as the best, including the likes of ''Lost," ''Rome," and ''House."

Yes, this sounds like more of the overstatement that has trailed David Chase's mob epic since its first season in 1999. Naysayers will probably cut and paste the above paragraph into their outrageous-gush file and submit it to a lampoon website. But I have no shame: The first four episodes of the final season, beginning Sunday at 9 p.m., are as exciting and artful as any Chase has delivered. From the early shot of Janice nursing an infant with a ''Sticky Fingers" tattoo on her breast, the show darts forward so confidently you'll quickly remember what made it a classic in the first place. And at the end of the hour, one excruciating scene will remind you of just how darkly haunting ''The Sopranos" can be.

The action picks up some two years later, and we catch up with the characters in a montage accompanied by a recording of William S. Burroughs reading his poem ''Seven Souls." I won't disclose anything significant here, except to say that an angry Johnny Sack is in prison and Uncle Junior is still in a dubious mental state. ''He's Knucklehead Smith," Tony gripes to Janice. And, in an amusing development that both recalls their bourgeois aspirations and contradicts their identification with rich Italian food, Tony and Carmela have become rabid sushi fans. Not that Tony is healthier now; he's fatter than ever, while closeted gay mobster Vito Spatafore (Joseph Gannascoli) appears to have trimmed down.

Indeed, food is still a metaphor on the show. Paulie still looks like the Bride of Frankenstein, A.J. is still glum, and dream sequences still unearth Tony's unconscious. And Tony still scatters human casualties in his wake. A few things have certainly shifted over the course of the series, but many haven't, including the deepest nature of each character. Some viewers have hoped to see Tony, Carmela, and others undergo radical epiphanies, but the characters' resistance to enlightenment and change is one of the show's strengths. It adds authenticity to the drama of a man in psychotherapy, a man who fights revelation while it very slowly opens his eyes. No matter how many radical events occur around Tony, including his mother's wish to have him killed, he is largely unchanged. In real life, change is possible, but usually incremental. Only pat TV dramas will fast-track their characters' growth.

One of the defining qualities of ''The Sopranos," which will air 12 episodes and then return for the final eight in January, is its attention to detail. There are no throwaway lines in the scripts, and specifics from previous seasons always resurface. The show operates like a mythology series on the order of ''Lost," except that the clues have more to do with understanding characters and their moral orientation than with a Big Mystery. In the next few weeks, many large clues about who these people truly are will emerge. Edie Falco will continue to prove she is the best actress working on TV today, as she reveals Carmela's core, and the riveting James Gandolfini will continue to show new facets of Tony as a boyish monster.

Savor it.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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