Head man

Feb 9, 2000 at 12:00 am

Pity poor Tony Soprano. His stress and panic attacks have sent him to a psychiatrist, who, in turn, has gone into hiding from him. He sits at his dinner table with AJ and Meadow, his two snotty adolescent kids. His long-suffering wife, Carmela, who would probably waste little time hopping into bed with the parish priest, snarls about his cussing at the table. His scheming sister, Janice, recently returned from the commune, keeps bringing up their mother who he claims is "dead to me."

Pity poor Tony Soprano? Wait a minute – this guy is a mobster, a cold-blooded killer who makes decisions and dispatches lives with the calm of deciding whether to have the marinara or the clam sauce. But that’s just one of the charms of "The Sopranos." Here’s a guy most people would avoid like the plague, but he’s a figure you can have some sympathy for.

This isn’t some afternoon soap opera (oops, daytime drama); it’s HBO’s "The Sopranos" – last season’s hit series on the cable network and one of this season’s most anticipated renewals.

Speaking of his mother Livia – whom Tony refuses to speak about – last season she arranged with her brother-in-law, Uncle Junior, to kill Tony. Uncle Junior is under indictment for 12 counts of racketeering and is making noises about bringing Tony down with him. Tony recently usurped control of the local mob from Uncle Junior, who is scheming to take over again.

And this is just his real family. The mobster family is just as dysfunctional. The feds are breathing down Tony’s neck. One of his lieutenants, Chris, Carmela’s nephew, is a spinning-out-of-control coke freak with a hot temper and a fast trigger finger. Another lieutenant, Pussy Bompensiero (also known as Big Pussy, whereas Little Pussy was a minor character who fueled the early episodes last season), disappeared for a while when the rest of "The Family" thought he was a leak to the feds, but resurfaced when another mobster took the rap and was eliminated. But now it looks like Big Pussy may actually be the rat.

This is not the Corleone family of The Godfather. This is a bunch of Jersey guys for whom the heyday of the mob is over. Discipline is falling apart. Youngsters don’t want to wait their turn. They meet in malls and coffee shops and wear Ban-Lon shirts.

No wonder Tony is having panic attacks and has been secretly seeing a shrink. Unfortunately, the big-legged Dr. Jennifer Helfi is developing problems of her own related to her relationship with Tony.

No wonder Tony seems to stagger around with a big, goofy grin on his face all the time. His calming escape is to go into the yard, dangle his feet in the pool and smoke a fat stogie. This calm doesn’t last long, and anyone who watches "The Sopranos" knows that the ca-ca is about to hit the fan.

This fiction is so strange it could be true – which is what makes "The Sopranos" so compelling. There’s little gimmickry in the show; no pyrotechnic effects, few tricky, artsy camera angles or examples of weird lighting. Even Tony’s hallucinations have a clear, pastoral feel to them. Mainly, it’s just great storytelling. A little confusing, but once you know who is who it sucks you in. Imagine a group of men in the back room of a topless club having a straight-faced conversation about Big Pussy and Little Pussy that has nothing to do with sex.

Nearly every character on the show is scamming. Everyone has something to hide. And almost everybody knows somebody else’s secret, yet declines to talk about it. Everyone knows Tony is a mobster, yet he tells everyone he’s in waste management. His kids smirk about it. The priest talks to Carmela about her husband’s "work."

And when it comes to scamming, Janice, the character introduced for the new season, seems to be the queen of schemes. And she’s not even a mobster.

Richie, another new character, is the brother of the former mob leader and has just gotten back from 10 years in jail. On the surface, he gives fealty to Tony; behind the scenes his allegiance is to Junior, but he’s really plotting to take over things himself.

The mob is a man’s world, but the women here are pulling some heavy strings. Livia, Carmela, Janice and even young Meadow all have secret agendas to achieve. All of them are trying to manipulate Tony.

"The Sopranos" is about two basic things. One is making your way through a changing world. The mob is changing; the women are changing; the kids are changing and it’s all very confusing.

The second thing is that nobody, nobody, is what they appear to be on the surface. One of last year’s subplots illustrates this: Uncle Junior performs oral sex on his longtime girlfriend. She is satisfied and ecstatic. Junior warns her not to tell anyone, which she promptly does at the hairdresser. Carmela hears and tells Tony, who uses it as a dig against Junior during a golf outing. The enraged Junior smashes a cake in his girlfriend’s face and sends her away.

Of course, all of these guys get into oral sex.

But that’s the metaphor for the difference between what everyone appears to be and who they really are. "The Sopranos" is about guys who eat pussy but refuse to admit it.