The Sopranos, premiering at 9 tonight, is almost evenly divided between Tony Soprano's working life as an efficiently brutal crime chief and his equally testing home life as a husband and father. James Gandolfini, who made his bones as a minor mobster in several movies, now assumes full stature as a man of respect. He's authoritative as a character capable of killing, yet touchingly vulnerable when seeking the best of comforts for his wife, daughter and son.
The premise of Sopranos, which is scheduled for 13 weekly episodes, is that there is a link between Tony's two families. She's a psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco.
Bracco, like Gandolfini, knows her way around this kind of sinister scenario. She played Karen Hill, the wife of mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), in one of the best of recent crime movies, GoodFellas (1990).
Tony's physician recommends that he consult Jennifer after he is felled by an anxiety attack resulting from the many stresses in his bifurcated life.
The earliest of many superior scenes in this series comes tonight when Tony meets Jennifer. Aware that he is more than a ``waste-management consultant,'' which he lists as his occupation, Jennifer warns him that their ``patient/doctor confidentiality'' agreement does not cover crimes, which she would have to report.
So Tony tells her only briefly about Alex Mahaffey (Michael Gaston), an HMO executive who owes him a debt. A flashback shows that Mahaffey is a compulsive gambler who is $250,000 in hock. Only after Tony breaks Mahaffey's leg does the gambler agree to a fraud in which his company will pay phony claims to dummy Mafia clinics. But Tony tells Jennifer that he and Mahaffey only drank coffee at their meeting.
A leitmotiv in the series is Tony's conviction that the Mafia was better-run in former times, when his late father was a crew chief. As he tells Jennifer tonight, ``Lately I'm gettin' the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.'' Instead of a strictly observed code of omerta, or silence, he ruefully regards an underworld in which capos and button men rat out one another and then take refuge in the federal witness protection program.
Rounding out the regular cast:
* In the Sopranos' palatial home reside Tony's wife, Carmela (Edie Falco); their daughter, Meadow, 17, a high school senior (Jamie Lynn Sigler); and their son, Anthony Jr., 13 (Robert Iler).
* Tony's mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), is bitter, resentful, ungrateful, and almost unbearable to watch on the little screen. You'll feel Tony's pain as he vainly attempts to wring one kind word from her curt, cruel mouth.
* Another headache for Tony is his father's brother, Uncle Junior Soprano (Dominic Chianese), a career criminal always on the hustle for more power and money. Uncle Junior's most lethal weapon is his driver and hit man, Mikey (Al Sapienza).
* Tony's crew includes his brash young nephew, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). Chris is not as efficient as Tony would like, but he is absolutely loyal, capable of killing without qualm for his uncle.
* The Sopranos is filmed at Silvercup Studios in Astoria in the borough of Queens, just across the 59th Street Bridge from Manhattan. One of the first things you notice on a visit to the set is that most of the actors in the regular and guest casts are Italian Americans.
That heritage includes David Chase, the creator/writer/director/producer of the series, who was named David DeCesare when he grew up in New Jersey. His background includes years of work on various series including The Rockford Files, Northern Exposure, and I'll Fly Away. But this is the first series that is exclusively his baby, his vision, his pet.
Chase has loved gangster movies since his boyhood, catching up with classics such as The Public Enemy (1931), which made James Cagney a star. Millions of moviegoers, like Chase, vividly recall the scene in which Cagney, playing an Irish gangster in Chicago, shoves half a grapefruit into the face of Mae Clarke. For years afterward, whenever Cagney entered a restaurant, someone would routinely hand him a grapefruit.
Chase has no desire to glorify the Mafia, or to make it seem even remotely respectable.
``I want the show to be about human behavior,'' he said, ``some of which is not always savory. I sort of hope the show speaks for itself.''
Chase is aiming high, his models the best. ``I love The Godfather, parts one and two,'' he said. ``I also really respond to Mean Streets and GoodFellas.''
Gandolfini, an Italian American from New Jersey, previously played mobsters in A Stranger Among Us (1992), True Romance (1993), and The Juror (1996). Commenting on Tony Soprano, he sees ``a lot of similarities between his life and mine.''
Chase first wanted Bracco, an Italian American from Brooklyn, to play Tony's wife, but on the ground of ``been there, done that,'' she declined to reprise her outstanding performance as Karen Hill and told Chase, ``I love the shrink and I want to do her.'' Tony picked Jennifer to be his therapist because she is a fellow Italian American.
Bracco decided to make her character a disciple of Carl Jung because she dislikes the theories of Sigmund Freud. ``I believe he didn't like women. He felt we were hysterical beings.''
For the role of Edie, Tony's wife, HBO recommended Falco, whose portrayal of prison guard Diane Whittlesey on the Oz series has been distinctive and touching. Daughter of an Italian father and a Swedish mother, she grew up on Long Island in a neighborhood with many Italians. She describes Edie as ``a woman like I've grown up with all my life.''
As for Gandolfini, Falco said, ``Chemistry is abundant between Jim and I. We know intuitively how this couple behaves.''
HBO describes The Sopranos as ``a family like yours . . . almost.'' Here's a hope that they are not too much like yours.
Some highlights from the next five episodes:
Jan. 17: Because Anthony Jr. is close to failing science, Tony undertakes to find his teacher's stolen car.
Jan. 24: Tony delivers a sexy present to an ailing friend.
Jan. 31: A Mafia funeral is a revelation to one of the people in attendance.
Feb. 7: After 12 years, Tony encounters an old enemy.
Feb. 14: As a favor to his tailor, Uncle Junior dispatches Mikey to deal harshly with a drug dealer.