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ON THE TUBE

If you were anxiety-ridden that HBO's "The Sopranos" (9 p.m. Sunday, pay-cable) couldn't survive the loss of Tony's duplicitous mother Livia, forgetaboutit. After a long wait, pay-cable's First Family it is back, not so much with a bang as with a twinkle and some laughs.

The first three episodes of season No. 3 hit the ground running in a comic series of strong, entertaining adventures. Even the death of Livia (the late Nancy Marchand), in the second hour tonight is treated with more humor than sorrow.

Wait until you see the wake where Tony's sister, Janice (Aida Turturro), asks those who knew Tony's mother well to say a few words about her. Mama mia. It's a mean-spirited hoot.

When you add comic takes on why shoelaces aren't hygienic and how to play "Survivor," as well as upcoming references to the movie "Gladiator," you almost wonder if Jerry Seinfeld was involved in the writing.

The opening episodes tone down the violence and the sex in favor of focusing on the dynamics of the Sopranos' home life. But Bada Bing. By episode six, which HBO also sent along, sex scenes proliferate and the violence level approaches what Russell Crowe endured in "Gladiator."

The first three episodes are more notable for water heaters blowing up and artificial legs being misplaced than fingers being chopped off. And then there's the sights and sound of Tony, singing "I'm on a fool to do your dirty work."

The show's soundtrack is a bonus, with songs from the Police and an old TV crime drama (I think it is from "Peter Gunn"), capturing the perfect mood in the first 15 minutes.

Poor Tony (James Gandolfini). He finds himself dealing with the one mysterious world he can't control - the one inhabited by teenagers. Instead of obsessing on his favorite mob movie, "Public Enemy," he should be watching ABC's "Once and Again" to take notes on how real teens behave.

His daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), is off to Columbia University, enabling her to be independent at the same time she can go home to New Jersey to get a home-cooked meal, have her laundry done and see her dad turn into Archie Bunker when he meets her new boyfriend (who is half-Jewish and half African-American).

Son Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) is at least finding a new love, football, that makes his father proud. Wife Carmela (the wondrous Edie Falco), meanwhile, is off pursuing tennis and backing up her husband's behavior even when it disturbs her.

Marchand's death certainly makes the focus on family issues understandable - creator-writer David Chase had to take the series somewhere once Tony's nemesis departed.

It also is logical for Chase to reveal more of the back story of Tony's childhood through flashback scenes so we better understand the mobster's anxieties and behavior.

Marchand certainly will be missed. Her scenes with Tony in the first two seasons where among the most entertaining and complex. Livia - who might have ordered a hit on her son - also was one big reason that Tony went to a psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Melfi is back in episode 3, though Tony warns her: "This has got to start showing results or end."

Bracco gets slightly more air time than Marchand, who appears in the second hour tonight in scenes with Tony that were shot a year ago - or in flashbacks. Gandolfini is acting without the benefit of having someone to play off, making those scenes a little stilted.

If Tony is less than heartbroken over his mother's death, it is because he isn't so sure that she wasn't going to do the feds dirty work and sing against him in a racketeering case. The feds clearly need more evidence against Tony or else they wouldn't be trying to bug his house while members of the "Bing" family (the feds nicknamed the Sopranos after Tony's strip club, Bada Bing) go on with their daily chores in Sunday's extremely funny opening hour, "Mr. Ruggiero's Neighborhood." Initially the feds are about as adapt at pulling this off as Mr. Rogers might be.

Sunday's second hour, "Proshai Luvushka" (10 p.m.), focuses on Livia's death and wake and Janice's attempt to get a leg up on mom's assets. This is also the episode in which Tony turns into Archie Bunker when he meets his daughter's boyfriend, a movie expert. What, you expected they'd bond over "Public Enemy" (in which the mobster was at least loved by his mother).

Next Sunday's third episode, "Fortunate Son," finds Tony looking to Melfi for some help dealing with his pain - or lack thereof - for his mother's death. We also are treated to the comic adventures of Christopher (Michael Imperioli) after he discovers being a "made" man doesn't mean that he is going to have it made. The war between Janice and Livia's Soviet housekeeper, Svetlana (Alia Kliouka), escalates. And we learn that Anthony Jr. has humorously some of Tony's uncontrollable behavior.

If the long wait for more "Sopranos" episodes made viewers as anxious as Tony often is, the anxiety was misplaced. Once and again, Chase and his writing gang show wonderful results.

Rating: 4 stars out of 4

If CBS hadn't rushed on "Big Apple" to fight "ER" (10 tonight, Channel 4), the new series from Buffalo natives David Milch and Anthony Yerkovich, it might have been able to send along three episodes like HBO and allowed critics to see where it is headed.

Tonight's pilot is a very complicated, intriguing story about Russian mobsters, frustrated FBI agents, untrustworthy informants and cynical New York Police Department detectives who play more games with each other than the cast of "Survivor." Unlike "The Sopranos," "Big Apple" is totally dark and just about devoid of any humor.

Milch and Yerkovich have attracted an excellent cast that includes Ed O'Neill, David Straithairn, Titus Welliver, Michael Madsen, Glynn Turman, Donnie Wahlberg and Kim Dickens (the only female regular).

It is hard to service them all adequately in one hour. O'Neill gets the most screen time, playing a character, Detective Mike Mooney, who is five city boroughs away from Al Bundy. Mooney is cynical about everything, including why the FBI wants him and his young partner to work with the agency on solving a murder case.

Welliver, a "NYPD Blue" guest and former cast member on Milch's "Brooklyn South," is FBI agent Jimmy Flynn, who has the Sipowicz ability to bend a rule or two if it yields extra information. Madsen is Terry Maddock, a bar owner and informant with suspicious motives. He is mentoring a thug, Chris Scott (Wahlberg).

The "Apple" opener bites off more than it can chew. But it sets up what could be potentially as interesting as another critically-acclaimed (and short-lived) CBS series, "EZ Streets."

Rating: 3 stars out of 4

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