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Season three of The Sopranos comes as something of a disappointment, but it’s not really the show’s fault. There’s only so much you can do when one of your main actors dies, rendering moot storylines you’ve been building up over two seasons. It’s an inherent danger in long-form storytelling. Although the writers do a brave job of coming up with alternative material, season three nevertheless fails to live up to the mark set by its predecessors.

Because of the last-minute changes to the script, some secondary characters get more attention that one might otherwise expect. For example, there are a number of storylines about Tony’s daughter, Meadow, and her boyfriends and other experiences at university. This is fine as far as it goes, but it felt quite melodramatic at times, and you imagine it wasn’t originally conceived as such a major part of the season. Most of the rest of the season sees Tony trying to manage his volatile crew, including a new character, Ralph Cifaretto, played by Joe Pantoliano. Ralphie is one of the highlights of the series; rather like Tony, he’s charismatic while also being extremely violent and very frightening. Unlike Tony, he doesn’t seem to have any protective instincts towards women or children–quite the opposite, in fact.

Tony himself continues trying to balance work and family pressures, continuing his counselling sessions with Jennifer Melfi (who also deals with major problems of her own.) We see Carmela trying to attend to her emotional needs, which proves interesting and provides probably the best scene in the series, when she attends psychotherapy herself. One of the odd things about the season is that, after the first few episodes, there’s no attention at all given to the federal prosecution of the Soprano gang; if the police had kept up their surveillance of Tony, they would have found him in some very awkward situations. As it is, they seem to give him a largely free leash. Maybe it was two for one on donuts or something.

On the whole, while watching this season it felt like the character and story development was in something of a holding pattern. Tony does develop a new romantic entanglement, which he learns from (to an extent) and which provides some more emotional insights. But I’m clutching at straws here. Considering the show’s reputation, and how good the first two seasons were, there’s no denying season three is a low point. Here’s hoping season four sees The Sopranos back on form.