Just when we thought they were out of fashion, they pull us back in . . . the Mafia, that is, the Italian crime families that have been satirized, romanticized, mythologized, and immortalized in classic movies by greats like Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Tomorrow night at 9, HBO introduces a winning series called "The Sopranos" that reenergizes the overfamiliar world of made men, blood-stained car trunks, pistol-whipping hotheads, and aging crooks with names like Paulie and Uncle Junior. It's a crime drama, of course, with plenty of thug violence and mob-boss power struggles. But it's also a postmodern comedy that knowingly plays on Prozac-era psychology and its own Mafia genre. Indeed, by the second episode Scorsese himself puts in a cameo appearance, walking into an exclusive New York club. "'Kundun' -- I liked it," a young thug yells out to the director across the velvet rope.
The idea of "The Sopranos" is that mob boss Tony Soprano, who is violent enough to break a debtor's leg, is having a midlife crisis. His family life is shaky, as his wife reels angrily from knowledge of his mistress, and his "family" life is losing its luster in an era where "everybody turns government witness" -- and then author. He's depressed, and for consolation he has begun to commune with the ducks in his New Jersey backyard, beckoning them to join him in the swimming pool. One day, he collapses in the yard, and soon after his doctor sends him to a psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, who quickly puts him on Prozac. The show is framed by Tony's sessions with the tough-minded Dr. Melfi, who reminds him that doctor-patient confidentiality does not extend to the subject of murder.
The scenes of Tony's personal life are the show's strongest, as they call forth his more neurotic behavior. He is a man not to be trifled with on the street, but he is fairly cowed by the powerful women who surround him, particulary his mother, played beautifully by Nancy Marchand. She's a manipulative, stubborn widow who gives her son no credit for his efforts. His loyal wife, Carmela, also wields her power over him, trying to hold their family together with inspiration from a friendly priest. She is about to enter into a struggle of wills with their teenage daughter, who is her equal in the headstrong department. As Carmela, Edie Falco is wonderfully blond and brassy. Meanwhile, Tony is becoming smitten with the good doctor as their rapport deepens. Soon, he is using her words as his own outside of their sessions.
Tony's organized-crime family is less interesting, except for a competitive uncle and a hotheaded nephew, played by Michael Imperioli, who has a habit of conducting heists behind Tony's back. Tony is more reserved as he deals with these men. What adds originality to the mob scenes are the allusions to real-life mobsters like John Gotti, and a constant flow of references to movies like "The Godfather." This mob watches itself onscreen, with one fellow (played by Bruce Springsteen guitarist Steve Van Zandt) amusing his pals with imitations of Al Pacino in "The Godfather, Part III." Despite a Scorsesean soundtrack that makes use of '50s-to-'70s pop, the show's creators work hard to give the action a self-consciously present-tense quality. In a coffee shop, for instance, Paulie laments that the mob never worked the cappuccino craze. "We invented this [expletive] and all these [expletive] are getting rich on it," he says.
As Tony, James Gandolfini offers a subtle mix of pent-up violence and sensitive boyishness. His performance works at both extremes of Tony's personality, and he makes the therapy scenes, which could seem contrived, completely natural. Welling up over his beloved backyard ducks, his mobster is unexpectedly sympathetic. Lorraine Bracco is also effective as Dr. Melfi, drawing Tony out while trying -- not always successfully -- to rein in her judgment. Her casting is an ongoing reminder of the show's strongest influence, "GoodFellas." No, "The Sopranos" is not the equal of Scorsese's masterpiece, but it manages to bring a new spin to the words "dysfunctional" and "family," and it deserves its place alongside other HBO gems like "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Sex and the City."