Tonight, at 9 PM, on HBO, The Sopranos returns for the home stretch of its sixth and final season. Imagine if there were a day in which God comes back from the dead one last time before going away forever. This is like that day, but bigger. In fact, basically every demographic, interest group, and extant species is primed to benefit from the brief earthly return of The Sopranos before its ascension, nine episodes from now, to the heavenly pantheon currently occupied by other such pillars of Western civilization/dearly departed HBO originals as Rome, Socrates, William Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Tracy Takes On... and Arli$$. Everyone, that is, except TV critics. Indeed, the Inquisition dilemma facing the nation's small-screen literati this weekend is stark and unforgiving: To ignore The Sopranos would be sacrilege, of course, but to actually claim to "review" it—that is, to claim oneself as capable of understanding its true nature—would be heresy. The only solution? Total Prostrated Submission.

Tom Maurstad of the Dallas Morning News demonstrated this novel confessional mode of criticism quite adroitly in an article yesterday entitled "Watch or die":

Make no mistake: The Sopranos is the greatest television show - ever.... [The Sopranos] is a show unlike anything that's come before.... This is the real thing. Hank Aaron's last season; Secretariat's last race; Maria Callas' last opera - that's what viewers will be witnessing when they tune into the Sopranos final season, one of those once-in-a-generation moments.... That's what makes repeat viewings both a pleasure and a necessity: there's just too much to absorb in one viewing.

Unchallenged supremacy, unknowable significance, the complete inadequacy of human agency or resistance: these are the ruling principles of the proper Sopranos send-off. In the Washington Post Friday, Tom Shales was already nearing despondency:

"The Sopranos" has always been about much more than the mob, and as this final movement builds to a climax, the prospects and possibilities are both tantalizing and scary.... Chase has illuminated so many dark corners already that one shudders in anticipation of those still to come. Without question, "The Sopranos" is a landmark in television drama — one of the liveliest and deadliest landmarks ever. It will be exhilarating and depressing to see it go.

More, more, more. More than mortals can comprehend; more than normal space-time can contain. Matthew Gilbert in the Boston Globe:

At this point in the progress of HBO's "The Sopranos," every little chance detail carries enormous weight.

We can never understand the whole of The Sopranos! We can only hope that its enormity can maybe help us understand our small, pitiable selves. Thus, David Zurawik in today's Baltimore Sun:

For 5 1/2 seasons, The Sopranos has sagaciously explored a range of institutions and big ideas: marriage and family, capitalism and psychiatry, ethnic identity and modern-day tribalism. But the series has been at its unparalleled best when fearlessly dissecting what it means to be a middle-aged man in America today.

And Verne Gay in Newsday:

So here's one more interpretation: These six seasons were in some exquisitely warped fashion about us - about you and me and about how the American culture to which we are inextricably bound can be a corrupting influence that can even lead to something as malignant as a mob family.

But why (not) be provincial? Bill Harris in the Toronto Sun:

The final run of new episodes for what arguably is the most influential series in the history of TV begins tonight on The Movie Network and Movie Central in Canada.... There's even a Canadian angle to the show tonight, with Tony and Bobby taking advantage of their proximity to the border to do a little international business.

No angle too obtuse, no theory too abstruse, for The Sopranos, which is the infinite, which will never leave us, which is how we will cope with a loss too horrific to face alone. Robert Bianco in USA Today:

Seldom has a story been richer, and never has a show arrived with higher expectations or with more self-inflicted pressures.... So for now, perhaps, the wisest course is to put aside concerns and wishes for how the show should end and allow it to play out as Chase intends. Cherish the past, embrace the present and let the future take care of itself.

Amen. But, beware, there is at least one heathen among us, and her name is Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times. In her review today, Stanley tries to put The Sopranos in so-called "context" and "perspective," naming antecedent programs (St. Elsewhere, Twin Peaks, Hill Street Blues) and even making needlessly provocative and entirely unfalsifiable claims, such as "Showtime, however, took more imaginative riffs on the HBO example..." and "[E]ven before last season the series had started to sag in places, a creative fatigue that matched the main characters' weariness and also the audience's."

Why is she saying these mean things about us? It is because she doesn't know what that feeling is—that sagging is all that is good and right and beautiful with the world. And they can't take it! They can't! Please don't go away, we'll do anything...