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The Sopranos: Count your blessings nine last times

Tony, Carmela, Bobby and Janice for once are one happy "Family." Don't push it, though, 'cause these things just don't seem to last.

Push comes to shove, as it always does, in HBO's The Sopranos.

Except that in this environ, a push can be a full-blown fistfight and a shove a fatal "hit."

There indeed is some of that going around as the greatest TV series on earth begins a nine-episode countdown to its end-game. Otherwise, its Easter Sunday kickoff (8 p.m. central, 9 eastern) is something of a softie compared to last spring's explosive opener.

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) getting gut-shot by a demented Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) came out of nowhere. Sunday night's blowup comes after an almost telegraphed buildup. Still, it'll get your attention.

We begin the "Soprano Home Movies" episode with a flashback to winter 2004. It's the day that Tony tromps through the snow and away from New York boss Johnny Sack's (Vincent Curatola) house when he sees the cops coming. While fleeing, he drops his pistol. It's reclaimed by Sack's teenage son, who'd been peering through an upstairs window.

Flash forward to present day 2007, with Sack still in jail and the police pounding on the Soprano residence.

"Is this it?" Carmela (Edie Falco) asks, fearing the ultimate day of reckoning has dawned.

Tony is charged with owning an illegal firearm, the same one the kid was still packing when cops caught him with drugs in his possession. He briefly winds up in a mass holding pen, with a fellow jailbird defecating in a door-less commode just behind him. Happy birthday, Tony. He's turning 47 and his mortality again feels like an anvil pressing on a thin-skinned skull.

The charge is dropped after the feds get pissed. They've been building a Rico case against Tony for the past five years. "Then you blow this popcorn fart," one of Essex County's not-so-finest is told.

It's all prelude to the episode's main event, a weekend birthday trip to the Adirondacks, where Tony's sister, Janice (Aida Turturro), and her mob gofer husband, Bobby Baccalieri (Steven R. Schirripa), own a nice house by the lake.

Tony's in a good mood on the heels of another reprieve.

A deer head mounted on the wall is "gonna pass. He's stuffed," Tony cracks when food is mentioned. That night in bed, Carmela gifts him with a sexual treat that he likely doesn't get very often. Life is good again, although Tony keeps ruminating on whether life also might be too short to be still tilling in the killing fields.

The episode seems a little sluggish at first, sort of like the elongated, early wedding celebrations in both The Godfather and The Deer Hunter. But calms before the storms make the storms all the more furious. So let's just say that nobody gets killed at the lake house, but somebody definitely gets hurt. More layers are added, more emotions stripped away.

Episode 2, also sent for review, is built around Christopher Moltisanti's (Michael Imperioli) new pride and joy, his first slasher movie.

It's called Cleaver, and it has nothing to do with Beaver. Well, at least not that Beaver. Christopher is the co-executive producer, beaming at a gala "world premiere" attended by all the old gang.

The film tellingly is more gruesome and graphic than anything we've seen in The Sopranos' "real life" mob world. But this is reel life, with Christopher later confiding, "Originally I thought of a ball peen hammer, but a cleaver's better."

His movie's central character, "Sally Boy," is played by one of the lesser Baldwin brothers, Daniel. The second episode also has guest appearances by Geraldo Rivera (seen only through a TV screen as himself) and director Sydney Pollack as a defrocked doctor administering to an infirm Johnny Sack.

Old hands such as Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt) and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) are barely glimpsed in the first episode and mostly peripheral in the second. Paulie does, however, manage to mangle another piece of popular culture when trying to recite a lyric from "Spinning Wheel." In his version it's "Ride the painted pony, let the spinner wheel glide."

Less jarring than last spring's opening acts, these episodes very ably paint the undercoat for those expected big splashes to come. Tony contemplates his life's choices while also still relishing the pure joys of feeling full of himself and feared by others.

His recovered nemesis, Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), talks about wanting no more of the mob life, and wishing he could get a re-do.

Christopher increasingly is seduced by the film world, even though the lead character in his first film is too close to Tony for Carmela's comfort.

And Johnny Sack? Well, let's just say he's going to have a life-changing experience.

It's all going to be up for grabs in The Sopranos' remaining seven episodes. Creator David Chase, unlike the maestros of Lost, actually seems to know where he's going. Or at least that's the bet and the hope here. This guy's got more invested than we do. The show has consumed his life since it first dawned on Jan. 10, 1999, a day in TV history unlike any other.

Ultimately, all that really matters is what happens to Tony and Carmela. Will he get out alive? Will she be with him to the end? Or will what Tony did to Adriana La Cerva be his undying, unforgivable mortal sin?

The answers at last are at hand. Only nine more hours to The Sopranos' eleventh hour.

But when a series has been this good for this long, then really, what's the hurry?

Grade: A