'Sopranos' back in business

HBO mob drama begins 4th season

— A lot � too much � has happened since "The Sopranos" completed its third season.

That was in May 2001 as HBO's great drama wrung out a finale of unrelieved foreboding.

At 8 p.m. Sunday, "The Sopranos" kicks off another 13 weekly episodes. And not a moment too soon.

Set in New Jersey, where Tony Soprano presides as husband, father and mob boss, "The Sopranos" has clipped a glimpse of the Twin Towers from its opening titles. But it wastes no time addressing the tragedy of 9-11.

"Ma really went downhill after the World Trade Center," Soprano soldier Bobby Bacala tells Tony in Sunday's opener. Then the none-too-bright Bacala adds, "Quasimodo predicted all this."

"Nostradamus," Tony impatiently corrects him. "Quasimodo's the hunchback of Notre Dame."

Whatever. Season 4 of "The Sopranos" seems poised to do something far more valuable for its audience than underline the painfully obvious. In its own way, it is bridging the abyss between Before and Now.

On "The Sopranos," no one rests easy. Not Before, and certainly not Now.

Now Uncle Junior is awaiting his RICO trial. The Feds have infiltrated Tony's ranks. Christopher, the surrogate son being groomed by Tony to succeed him, is not only a screw-up but also, unbeknownst to Tony, hooked on heroin.

On the home front, Tony's wife, Carmela, is pressing him to diversify their holdings beyond cash stuffed in mattresses "at zero growth."

"Stocks?!" he snorts, as if bowing to a better class of criminal. "We don't have those Enron-type connections!"

Full of headaches and hassles, life goes on for Tony, just as it does (with bloody exceptions) for the many others inhabiting his rancorous world. Tony's conflicts, foibles and psychotherapy continue as our rich escape.

Making its force known

"The Sopranos" arrived in January 1999 with Tony collapsing in an anxiety attack and landing in a psychiatrist's office. The audience fell in love.

Since then the series, in the sure hands of its creator-producer David Chase, has grown into a phenomenon not even Nostradamus could have foreseen.

It scored back-to-back Peabody awards in 2000 and '01, while James Gandolfini and Edie Falco (who play Tony and Carmela) have won two Emmys apiece. (Its 16-month hiatus means no Emmy consideration this year.)

But here's another indicator of its cultural impact: a mountain of "Sopranos" ancillary products.

� Read about the eating disorder of Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who plays spoiled daughter Meadow Soprano, in her recent memoir.

� Buy the architectural plans for the New Jersey manse whose exteriors serve as the Soprano residence, touted by its real-life owner as "the most famous house in the country."

� Feast like Tony and his crew with Italian cuisine marketed under the name of Artie Bucco, fictional owner-chef of Nuovo Vesuvio Ristorante on the show.

"All this chaos!" marvels Falco, who merely walking about Manhattan meets herself on magazine covers and bus-shed posters. "It's this whole tornado that goes on around us just coming to work and doing a show we're proud of."

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