Hear, hear The Sopranos love!
The opening episode is probably my favourite Sopranos episode so far. "Mr. Ruggerio's Neigborhoud" is the show switching into full meta-mode and I loved it. I'm sure that many viewers (those who were there for the mob stuff and the badass Tony Soprano scenes) found it weird and disliked it at the time -- the same way some BB fans hate "The Fly"but it's brillantly done and also a very funny episode.
I love the way the agents stalking and watching the family were basically representing our own voyeurism, how they could catch little details that the characters themselves could not see but the audience could (like that the 120-gallon water heater is about to blow, and one of the agent joke about the fact that they cannot warn Tony!), how they call the characters by their first name, and how they were entertained by the show. And when two agents spotted Patsy Parisi approaching with a gun, near the swimming pool and aiming at Tony who was inside of the house, they freaked out but were like excited viewers witnessing an unexpected twist and wanting to know what would happen next. Actually it looked like a sort of repetition of the Janice pointing a gun at Richie Aprile, except that this time Patsy did not shoot, he just pissed in the pool.
There was the idea that we pry into the live sof the others too. And that the normal life is kinda boring, even in The Sopranos household. So when finally the basement is all wired up, what do the agents hear? A very mundane conversation between Tony and Carmela.
We have moments of "the show comments on itself" or "the show is aware of its ow tricks" in "Proshai, Livushka" too.
The rewind scene that followed Carmela finding a passed out Tony on the floor was echoed by Meadow rewinding the film she and her friend had been watching.
I spoiled myself a few days ago about Nancy Marchand's death between seasons 2 and 3, but even if I hadn't known she was already dead, I would have noticed the awful effects in the last Livia/Tony scene. It was so obvious that they used footage from previous seasons (and therefore repetitive lines and gestures) combined with a double with a wig for the reverse shots showing Tony, and that there was some weird CGI when we saw Livia in her chair with Svetlana in the background. It looks very amateurish and bad.
On the other hand, it perfectly works, on a meta level, with the theme of the episode. It's all about ghosts after all. There is that lovely scene between AJ and Meadow about the Robert Frost's poem on his own upcoming death (and that wonderfull line exchange about black and white being both death, that sorta parallelled the Tony vs Noah earlier scene ), followed by AJ sensing some ghost in the house and asking "grandma?"; there's the ghost of Pussy, briefly showing up as a reflection in the door, that the audience only could spot.
So in a way, not having a live-looking Livia in the scene with Tony fits in. She was already a ghost, or rather the show paid tribute to Nancy Marchand by having her digital ghost haunting the screen. The characters and the show itself were haunted by ghosts. The opening scene and its rewind trick announced the CGI!Livia trick, showing that thanks to technology, on film you can reverse time, you make miracle happen. And with Tony watching Public Enemy featuring performers that they were longtime gone pointed out again that there's a kind of immortality for actors.
When Janice, who was so irritating in this episode, asked everyone to gather in the big room for some remembrance time it was awkward, with a few gags: Carmela chain-drinking; or the double gag involding the only person who could say something nice -- Livia's old friend whom she had hit on with her car in season 1 (and who's in a wheelchair since then!): firstly we couldn't see who had spoken since she was hidden by standing people, secondly the memory she shared about her best friend was that Livia always updated her on the latest necrologic info!
And there's the man that suddenly appears descending the stairs in the background, behind Tony, juts over his shoulder. It is out of focus so he's fuzzy but seems to be slender and wearing glasses (yet a younger looking figure than Uncle Junior's). He just looks in and then changes his mind and goes back up. It looks like a gag, showing someone who briefly observes the group of people downstairs, registers the awkwardness and flights from it. But I can't help thinking that it's a weird moment again, and the fuziness may suggest another ghostly apparition. Besides it seems to me that this background/upstairs person is drawn down by the music, like a ghost summoned by some medium. But as he is no longer part of this "play" he doesn't go down to join the living and leaves the stage, The fact he popped up behind Tony must be significant too.
I don't think it's supposed to be a supernatural element, no more than ghost!Pussy is, rather an insight into Tony's psyche. The sessions with Melfy and the dreams have been obvious plot devices to let the audience know what's going on in Tony's head, and these apparitions are another kind of device to tell us something of his state of mind as well. Tony seems unaware of them, but everytime he has a certain look on his face, and I believe that the ghosts in question are living in his subconscious but revealed that way to the audience. Pussy is still there, haunting him, but the fuzzy man, peering down and then re-ascending, might mean that Tony is ready to move on from certain past ghosts...at least the male ones! I bet that the ghost of Livia will still haunt the Sopranos for a while, though.
Of course another interpretation could be that the show did present us with supernatural apparitions watching or checking on the living. I know it's a Catholic show so maybe it was Chase's intent, and even though I don't believe in afterlife, I can accept that version...especially if we think of those ghosts as new avatars of the observers, echoing the audience and the FBI agents!