(Mar. 7) -- So one FBI agent says to another, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."
Out of the blue, this is the first thing heard in the first episode of the long-awaited return of HBO's "The Sopranos."
Why is a Fed quoting H.L. Mencken? If you've been counting the minutes until 9 p.m. EST Sunday, you need pay no mind to such a question. Or to this column either, beyond its observation that the new "Sopranos" season looks to be the strongest, most penetrating yet.
Enough said. Sunday's premiere, titled "Members Only," should be seen in its pure state, and yours, free of any advance skinny. That's how I viewed it. Since then I have watched it three more times. It's that good, from its eerie start to its startling climax. I only wish I could see it for the first time again.
There. Consider the preceding your spoiler alert.
The episode's initial sequence, as mesmerizing as anything "The Sopranos" has framed in its five prior years, is a slyly disjointed succession of images -- or what seems disjointed on first viewing. But what lies beneath is a fluid foreshadowing of the season ahead.
As the hour wears on, it seems Tony's universe is breaking down.
Let Tony (played by James Gandolfini) pay lip service to his current run of luck -- no, it's "more than luck," he boasts. In almost the same breath he confides a gnawing fear to his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), adding, "Why do you think I toss at night? It ain't just the apnea."
But "Sopranos" mastermind David Chase and his creative team haven't upped the tension level so much as introduced a whole new algorithm for conjuring dread.
"I'm worried," Carmela tells a friend.
"Everybody worries," her friend replies.
"No," persists Carmela. "I am worried all the time."
Let the characters worry. For the viewer, it's thrilling to behold. It's a rush.
Since Season Five's conclusion in June 2004, roughly 18 months have passed in "Sopranos" Time as life goes on:
-- Tony's sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and her mobster-hubby Bobby Bacala (Steve R. Schirripa) have had a baby daughter.
-- Carmela grows curious what happened to Adriana, whom no one has heard from, as Carmela notes, "for over a year" (around the time poor Ade was executed on Tony's orders for having been an FBI informant).
-- Tony's hothead nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli), who was Adriana's fiance until playing his role in her disappearing act, is on the wagon (again) and all the more foul-tempered for his booze-and-drugs abstinence.
-- And if you weren't otherwise convinced that the world of Tony Soprano had been rocked in its moorings, ponder this: He and Carmela are hooked on Japanese cuisine. On the first episode, Tony dines out once on pasta, but three times on sushi.
"I don't know about you, but ever since we found this place I catch myself fantasizing about this," says Carmela as she savors a bite of eel.
"Me, too," says Tony, grinning. "Sometimes during sex."
Other things remain status quo.
Tony and Carmela's teenage son A.J. (Robert Iler) is still a sullen screwup.
Tony, though currently skipping his antidepressants (not a good idea), still sees his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), though how much progress he has made in his six years of therapy is debatable: "You still, after all this time, cannot accept you had a mother who didn't love you," Melfi tells him as he squirms.
And Tony's Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) has continued his Alzheimer's-fueled descent into addled paranoia and hostility.
It still tears up Tony to see the old man losing his marbles -- never mind that, a while back, Uncle Junior conspired with Tony's mother to have him whacked. But Tony has his blind spots, typified when he lectures A.J. that "friends are gonna let you down. Family: They're the only ones you can depend on."
What really seems to haunt him is the loss of self he is seeing in his uncle -- which only heightens his own existential doubts. Too introspective for his own good, Tony more than ever seems plagued by questions about who he is and how he can hold on to his identity.
The episode ends with Tony cooking dinner for Uncle Junior, with a vintage Artie Shaw record playing on the phonograph.
"Comes a rain storm, put your rubbers on your feet. Comes a snow storm, you can get a little heat." The pop-song lyrics may recall for viewers Tony's panic-stricken slog through the snow fleeing FBI agents at the end of last season. His shoes got soaked and he got cold, but he cheated fate then.
"Comes love," the song continues -- "nothing can be done."
Can anything be done? As the season begins, that's the terrifying question the episode ends with.