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The family next door to Tony Soprano's Jersey manse, you'll remember, is named Cusomano. They're the aspirant suburbanites we saw early on at dinner treating their neighbor Tony the mob boss as if he were a beloved zoo animal. The dinnertime conversation stopped just short of "Come on Tone, tell us what it feels like to whack a guy."

Eventually, Tony Soprano understood where he stood in the Cusomano's country club social view of the world. A cobra smile settled across his face. The noisiest nostrils in the history of American television began to work overtime (far more than a psychiatrist, it seems to me, Tony has always needed the ministrations of a good allergist or ear, noise and throat guy.) The Cusomanos and their upwardly mobile suburban friends had teased the wrong zoo animal. One way or another, there would be payback.

It's the kind of acute social observation that made the first two seasons of "The Sopranos" -- especially the first -- perfect in its way. Never before had an American television series presented us with such a subtle understanding of social vectors. The world around this raging bull -- where the houses are large and underfurnished and ducks on the pool are considered bad news by everyone but Tony the primitive -- was, inside the house and environs, Carmela's world of social aspiration. Down at Satriale's meats and the Bada Bing, Tony's world is one of mobsters jockeying for a bigger slice, a longer time to "wet their beaks" in the fountain.

That kind of devastating social observation has all but disappeared from "The Sopranos." Sure, in tonight's opener after more than a year away from us, you'll see newly separated Carmela, perfect in her pseudo-genteel pink jump suit, privately disgusted by the sound of A.J.'s flailing away at a $5,000 drum kit. It was bought for him by this guilt-ridden and maritally troubled suburban Dad who also happens to be a sociopathic mob boss.

But in carrying "The Sopranos" on so long past the expiration date of David Chase's original creative rush and James Gandolfini's initial passion for the character, that sort of ultra-subtle suburban class mechanics usually got lost.

What Chase is reduced to on tonight's "Sopranos" is getting major satisfaction out of an inside Hollywood joke. The Cusomano's dog is named Eszterhas, the same name as Joe Eszterhas, the schlocky megalomaniacal scriptwriter whose tell-all memoir "Hollywood Animal" just came out.

It's a good episode -- in fact by far the best of the first four -- but the pleasure we get is from having the familiar back, not the greater pleasure of discovering something inconceivable that had never been seen before.

Tony Soprano is, by now, Sunday night comfort food on HBO.

Same with Vic Mackey of "The Shield" on FX at 10 p.m. Tuesday. He's the wholly corrupt cop who was first introduced to us killing a fellow cop who'd come just a little too close. He's another honored returnee to TV's moral twilight this week.

He could only have existed in a morally ambiguous post-"Sopranos" TV world. Once Vic's wife left him and the audience could no longer factor his needy autistic son into his personal ethical equation, the show was reduced to being just another TV show (just as "The Sopranos" has been for the past two seasons, however intermittently brilliant and reminiscent it has been of its earlier better self.)

Even so, Vic Mackey is the most corrupt cop to hit TV weekly since J.D. LaRue on "Hill Street Blues." He's the first to have the spotlight, the first to be portrayed by the unquestioned star of the show, Michael Chiklis.

While our politicians and media grandstanders want to keep all questions a nice and simple black and white matter, our TV auteurs, creatively imprisoned by their own success, are "keeping it real" by putting us into a weekly twilight gray that is all-too-recognizable.

Whatever the reason, the boys -- Vic and Tony -- are back in town. And it's good to have them.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com