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‘Sopranos’ swan song

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"The Sopranos" returns Sunday for its last season. If the season's first two episodes are indicative, the series will end in fine form.

“The Sopranos” returns Sunday for its last season. If the season’s first two episodes are indicative, the series will end in fine form.

Craig Blankenhorn, Associated Press

HBO's two best series — one drama, one comedy — return Sunday, and for the drama, it's the beginning of the end.

THE SOPRANOS: After the first half of the sixth season was criticized — by fans and viewers alike — creator David Chase and his team return "The Sopranos" to the apex of great American drama in the first two episodes of the final nine-episode run.

Sunday's premiere (10 p.m. MDT) is a (mostly) quieter, more contemplative hour, while next week's episode chews more plot. In both, Chase and his writers seem to reply to complaints from some quarters that recent "Sopranos" episodes weren't exciting enough. Fisticuffs among family members, a fight against cancer and the use of a Humanitas Award as a potentially deadly weapon are all included in two episodes sent for review.

That's not to say the violence is gratuitous; it fits the story. And the writers don't abandon the show's other key themes, most notably the dysfunction in families, personal insecurities and the value of manipulation as a weapon. The notion of leaving a legacy also comes to the fore for several characters, and, not coincidentally, for the series itself.

The ghost of Tony's (James Gandolfini) dead mother, Livia, hangs over the premiere as Tony and Carmela (Edie Falco) travel upstate to stay at the lakeside home of Bobby (Steven R. Schirripa) and Janice (Aida Turturro). Board games and mind games are both played, and Tony bullies his way to finish first in both.

Next week's episode has more humor as viewers get to see select scenes from the movie Christopher (Michael Imperioli) has been making about a zombie mobster. Most of "Cleaver" is awful, but one scene is straight out of a "Sopranos" episode and the film's plot hits too close to home for Carmela, who takes offense at what Christopher may have cribbed from his real life.

At the same time, an imprisoned Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) battles cancer and a mob power vacuum in New York gets coverage on a Geraldo Rivera news show.

While a few developments have occurred off-camera, it doesn't feel like viewers are missing too much and only being told about plot advancements later, another complaint about last year's episodes (e.g., when did Chris get married?).

If "The Sopranos" can sustain the momentum in these early episodes through to the finale, the series will end in fine form.

ENTOURAGE: Superstar Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his entourage of hangers-on are back for another run of Hollywood-humor-infused episodes Sunday at 11 p.m.

When we last saw them, Vincent and his manager/best friend, Eric (Kevin O'Connell), had fired Vince's agent, Ari (Jeremy Piven). Obviously, this can't last. In all his rage and political incorrectness, Ari is too important to the show to stay out of Vince's life forever.

But in the interim, this on-the-outs-with-Ari interlude offers up new dramatic opportunities, including a new agent for Vince, the competent but tough Amanda (Carla Gugino). She brings Vince a movie offer: An adaptation of Edith Wharton's "The Glimpses of the Moon," which she compares favorably to "The Age of Innocence."

But with Amanda, there are other bumps in the road ahead. She won't tolerate Vince playing games — and then the truth comes out as to why he hates to disappoint her.

Vince's brother, Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon), lets his new NBC series, "Five Towns," go to his head once billboards for the series start to pop up on Sunset Boulevard. Drama gets Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) to take his picture in front of the billboard, but alas, none of the babes wandering by seems to notice.

The only hiccup in the Ari-as-persona-non-grata story is that it means more of Ari and his wife. It's not bad in early episodes but reaches its nadir in episode four when a former frat buddy of Ari's comes to visit.

The upside comes in episode three when Ari's depression over losing Vince makes the agent behave like a lovesick teenager after being dumped. It's as funny as it is pathetic.