Television Review

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IN THE SOPRANOS (C4), Tony Soprano has started to be bothered by paintings. In his psychiatrist's waiting-room, he gazes at a pastoral landscape with a barn, and sees only the shadow of something hidden in its gloomy interior; at his girlfriend's house, a Hockney swimming-pool seems to be nothing but a portrait of the darkness lurking at the back of the changing hut. In addition, a fellow gangster is in hospital with cancer, but Tony won't admit he might be dying; and he is further unmanned by an encounter with a Hasidic Jew who would rather "go down with the ship" than give in to threats.

In its second week, The Sopranos has shifted gear to become something far deeper and richer than it first appeared - and it already seemed to be an unusually sophisticated Mob drama. Now it has become a portrait of a man struggling to cope with the fear of death, struggling even to acknowledge that he is frightened: "If all this shit's for nothing," he demanded of his psychiatrist last night, "why we gotta think about it?" "That's the mystery, isn't it?" Dr Melfi replied.

James Gandolfini gives a performance of desperate dignity, matched by the sharpness of David Chase's script. Much of the action is fuelled by Tony's increasingly bizarre strategies for denial - sending one of the girls from his club into the hospital to show his dying friend a good time; accusing Dr Melfi, the shrink, of putting trick pictures in her waiting-room to fool him into thinking about the shadows. But this week we also got a shrewd swipe at the mythology of the Mafia. When Tony's egotistical teenage daughter sang a solo with the school choir, Uncle Junior's hoods staged a mock execution on Soprano's hothead nephew, Christopher, to teach him some respect; and it was hard not to read this combination of kitsch and bathos as deliberately mocking the grandiose baptism sequence in The Godfather.

Annoyingly, this portrait of a family in meltdown clashed with Generations, a new series on BBC2 in which different generations of women compare their lives. The first film, about the women of the Miles family in Somerset, was a gently gripping series of tragedies, only partly made up for by a happy ending. Eleanor, 87, had been freed from a loveless marriage only by her husband's death; Pat, her daughter, had left her children's father for a man she adored, to see him die of cancer. Now Pat's daughter, Alison, is a contented single mother, refusing to believe that you need to love just one person.

The overarching sense of sadness was intensified by the gulfs between the women. While Pat talked of the romance and happiness of years spent in Cairo, for Alison, those years were marked by the strangulating misery of boarding school and seeing her parents' marriage fall apart. And later it emerged that, at 17, Alison had had an abortion she had never discussed with her parents. I would have liked to hear the men's side of the story - had they felt just as trapped by marriage, by being unloved? But you can never know the whole story; to have half the story as delicately and discreetly filmed as this was, is not a bad compromise.