CON: Mob drama off target with lots of clunker episodes

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Dear readers, please forgive me, for I have failed you.

Last month, before the start of “The Sopranos” new season, I called it America’s best drama.

Boy, was I wrong.

Eight episodes in and it’s merely a good one, not great. The first episode on March 12 was solid and an excellent way to return to HBO’s lineup.

Since then the show has sunk to just so-so levels.

I expect more from this show. I think most people do.

Yet, compared to any other quality drama, “The Sopranos” has more not-so-hot episodes in a season than any other. And this season, the one we waited 18 months for, has had more clunkers than a used car lot.

ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” puts on 22 episodes a season and it doesn’t have this many low episodes. FX’S “Rescue Me” didn’t have any not-great episodes in its last 13-episode run. Fans of “24” continue to rave about the quality of the current run.

What’s wrong with “The Sopranos”?

This season, some plot points have been telegraphed so easily, a third-grader could figure them out. Really, was there anyone who didn’t think Johnny Sac would be pulled out of his daughter’s wedding early, or that Vito would hook up with the cook of his favorite Johnny Cakes?

The reason for killing Frankie Valli’s Rusty Millio was unexplained and a waste. Artie Bucco’s (John Ventimiglia) restaurant antics felt like this season’s Columbus Day Parade episode – a throwaway to rest tired writers.

And Christopher, one of the most intriguing characters of this fictional mob, has been relegated to extra status this year.

“The Sopranos” can get away with this shortfall because viewers and critics tend to grade this week’s episode on a curve with the previous five seasons. That means a bad one this week is offset by the memories of what we saw in, oh, season three, when the show was so far above anything else on TV, it stood alone.

There’s also a tendency in some quarters to judge the show based on what creator David Chase might give us down the road. That is, judge it not on what we’ve seen, but where we think we might be heading.

That’s not good enough.

The landscape has changed a lot since “The Sopranos” first hit big and the show hasn’t been able to keep up.

My colleague David Bianculli likes the novelistic nature of “The Sopranos” and argues that we shouldn’t judge the quality of the show until the last episode has been shown.

He thinks there’s a satisfying payoff coming.

I think he’s got a better chance at dating the Tooth Fairy.

One blockbuster episode at this point can’t make the whole season special. What’s worse is this mess won’t sort itself out until 2007, when the final eight episodes hit HBO.

Chase has said at each renewal point in his run at HBO that he would only continue forward if there were good stories to tell. I’m afraid this show might have gone one season too long.

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