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HBO goes back-to-back with hits

HBO's two popular returning series, "The Sopranos" and "Entourage," have a few things in common.
Both revolve around people operating in complicated businesses run by two different mobs -- the New Jersey Mob and the Hollywood Mob.

The supporting players to Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Vince Chase (Adrian Grenier) often walk on egg shells and fear saying the wrong thing at the wrong time might threaten their relationship to their gravy train.
And on premiere night -- 9 p.m. Sunday for "Sopranos" and 10 p.m. for "Entourage" -- it's Happy Birthday for Tony, Vince and their fans. Both characters celebrate birthdays in entertaining ways, though in Tony's case, "celebrate" isn't exactly the right word.
As I said in a story in last Sunday's paper, the first two episodes of the final season of "The Sopranos" rank with the best of the previous six seasons.
While recent seasons came with the feeling the writers were taking their sweet time to get to the finale, the reality that there are only nine episodes left heightens the tension and gives everything that happens some added texture because it may influence the end. Or not.
Called "The Sopranos Home Movies," the opener revolves around a trip that Tony and his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), take to the Adirondacks summer home of Tony's sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and brother-in-law Bobby Baccalieri (Steven R. Schirripa).
The episode, which also has some business subplots, is psychologically interesting, surprisingly violent and frequently laugh-out-loud funny because of how often family members misjudge each other.
It is funnier than anything in "Entourage," the half-hour series about the adventures of a young Hollywood star, his less-talented older brother and his street-smart friends from Queens. It doesn't try as hard to make you laugh, but instead just smile about all the unusual circumstances they experience.

It has similarities to another HBO comedy, Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Of course, Vince is much younger and much better looking than David. But the writers of "Entourage" share David's skewering of the Hollywood scene and revolve the episodes around some minor bit of insanity just as David does.
This season's "Entourage" has one extra added attraction: Carla Gugino. The sexy, beautiful actress, whose credits include the failed ABC drama "Karen Sisco," plays Amanda, Vinny's new agent now that the Chase team has left super-agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven).

It doesn't take long for Amanda to discover what regular "Entourage" viewers know. "You boys have a very strange relationship," she says in the fourth episode.
Of course, Ari isn't taking the breakup well and Vince and his manager, Eric (Kevin Connolly), aren't exactly 100 percent sure they should have ended the relationship with an agent who would even hire Tony Soprano if he thought it would get Vince a coveted film role.
Ari's laughable attempts to get his favorite client back are behind the first five episodes, and his behavior can be as preposterous as anything Larry David has done on "Curb." The show desperately needs Ari, but however long Gugino stays around is a bonus.
One episode revolving around Ari's attempt to do business in a synagogue during the Jewish High Holy Days is especially reminiscent of "Curb," and even features one member of David's cast, Shelley Berman.
The secondary themes in the early episodes include the introduction of a new kinder and gentler Ari, which eventually even concerns the agent who has a reprehensible reputation to uphold. When he begins to care about the safety of his gay personal assistant, Lloyd (Rex Lee), you know Ari is off his game.
Then there are Turtle's (Jerry Ferrara) innovative attempts to give Vince the birthday party of the century without going over budget and to meet women with Vince's brother, Drama (Kevin Dillon) at a dog park; Eric's cowardly attempts to take a holiday with his girlfriend without hurting Vince's feelings; and Drama's revived ego now that he has a new TV series, as well as his willingness to be "surprised" by a prank TV show hosted by Pauly Shore. What, you expected Ashton Kutcher?
Of course, there is the usual amount of Hollywood name-dropping, horsing around (literally, in one episode) and cracks about the difference between making a smart artistic choice and a commercial one.
At one point, Eric agrees with Vince's positive feelings about a high-profile period film project by saying: "I liked it. What I understood, anyway."
Even if "Entourage" isn't exactly in "Sopranos" humor territory, it's easy to understand why this show about a likable and fortunate group of friends living a dream is so popular.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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>TV Review

"The Sopranos"

Review: Four stars (out of four)

9 p.m. Sunday on HBO

"Entourage"

Review: Three stars

10 p.m. Sunday on HBO

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