What to Watch 

Scripted, improv or reality: five of the most interesting shows on television this spring.

After 22 months away, "The Sopranos" returned to HBO with a bang: The now-senile Uncle Junior shot Tony in the stomach after confusing him with a long-dead nemesis. Maintaining the show's flair for grim irony, another Garden State gangster inherited more than $2 million but had his request to retire denied, leaving an agonizing suicide by hanging his only way out. "The Sopranos" has never been puppies and flowers, but the sixth (and final) season looks deliciously dark.

Also on HBO, "Big Love" is a controversial new drama starring Bill Paxton as a polygamist with a trio of wives in suburban Salt Lake City. The ubiquitous trailers suggest "Big Love" will revolve around the day-to-day difficulties of the group's peculiar domestic arrangement, with the three disparate housewives fighting for Paxton's attention. It's a quirky gimmick that could soon wear thin. Happily, there's a murky back story involving the fundamentalist compound the family left behind and the deal it struck with villainous religious leader "The Prophet" (Harry Dean Stanton). Another unexpected bonus is that even though the characters are free to swear like sailors on HBO, their religious beliefs require quaint curses like "Oh my heck!" and "No way in H!"

ABC attempted to mount the critically acclaimed comedy bandwagon with "Sons & Daughters," a semi-improvised sitcom starring Fred Goss. The cast is overcrowded, which the show acknowledges by freeze-framing characters to explain the complicated extended family, and the demands of improvisation leave "Sons & Daughters" unable to match the surreal plots of "Arrested Development," the show it really wants to be. But some great lines, like "Do you think it's weird to master the harmonica and not tell anybody?" and "I'm pretty in Cincinnati; I'm not pretty in a general sense" suggest a show that will get better if shown a little patience by both audience and network.

You can tell a lot about a reality show by its title, so ABC's "Miracle Workers" was never going to be subtle. Its seemingly altruistic premise is that people with serious medical problems are given revolutionary treatments. Unfortunately, any attachment we might feel to the patients is surgically removed by the condescending tone and infomercial production values. Rather than standing back and letting us get to know the subjects, we're instructed how to feel by repetitive voice-overs and stock music. The infomercial feel is completed by some shameless product placement for a certain pharmacy chain known by three letters.

Any show whose title contains two periods demands to be taken seriously. FX's "Black.White." is a reality show in which one black family and one white family trade races via some impressively convincing makeup. It's compelling viewing as the two families act out their perceptions of the other race. Brian, in his new white skin, heads straight for the golf course, while Bruno's decision to augment his new black skin with a slouch since black people "don't have great posture" will curl toes of all colors. The two families also live under the same roof, and "Black.White." gets serious when they debate their experiences around the dinner table. Bruno thinks Brian sees racism when it's not there, while Brian believes Bruno is missing racism that's right before his eyes. The truth is a massive gray area, but "Black.White." should spark national debate about a serious social issue, and how often can you say that about television? S


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