Nobody said it would be pretty. Why should it be?

Still, it didn't take long this season for HBO's The Sopranos (Sundays, 9 pm/ET) to see its reputation shift from ultrahip water-cooler fave to lightning rod for controversy.

Some are repulsed by the show's recent violence toward women: the rape of Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) and the fatal beating of a young, pregnant stripper by hotheaded (and hopheaded) Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano). In a more familiar complaint, Italian-American organizations object to what they see as a slur against their ethnic dignity, prompting one Chicago group to file a lawsuit. I keep wondering what the show's detractors expect. Yes, the world of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is brutal and ugly, often claiming as its victims the weak and defenseless. That's what criminals do, including the punk who assaulted Melfi in a parking garage and was freed on a technicality.

Violence on this show has shocking impact and unsettling consequences — unlike on HBO's more gratuitous, cartoonish Oz.

And anyone, Italian-American or otherwise, who thinks The Sopranos glamorizes mob life isn't watching. The characters quote from the Godfather movies, but the reality is more sordid, soul-deadening, antiromantic. Check out the strip club Bada Bing, where women are casually degraded for the pleasure of thugs. (Ralphie's transgression wasn't killing a "whore," as they see her, but "disrespecting the Bing.")

When one of Tony's captains died sitting on the toilet, it wasn't ironic: It was fitting. Waste in, waste out. Garbage to garbage, dust to dust. A corrosive bleakness permeates the show this year, from Uncle Junior's (Dominic Chianese) cancer to the restlessness of Tony's wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), illuminated by her memorable visit to a blunt psychiatrist who urged her to leave Tony, calling her an "accomplice" and Tony "a depressed criminal [who's] serially unfaithful." (Lately, he's more or less cheating on his own shrink as well, with foxy fellow client Annabella Sciorra.)

We understand Carmela's ambivalence because we feel it ourselves, fascinated yet repelled as we watch. The Sopranos is more disturbing than ever because the alternative would be cheap exploitation, not the artful drama it has always been.