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'THE SOPRANOS' SOARS FAR ABOVE EVERYTHING ELSE

I covered the Woodstock festival in 1969. And I sat next to an expansive, talking Beatle once for an hour -- OK, it was Paul McCartney in 1984 rather than John Lennon in 1969, but still, as Gertrude Stein might have said, a Beatle is a Beatle is a Beatle.

I still don't know what tear gas smells like, but I know what it's like to suddenly find yourself in the middle between a shrieking, rock- and bottle-throwing mob of students on one side and charging cops with helmets and batons on the other. (It was the May Frolic at the University of Buffalo in 1970. I was the reporter wearing a tie and armed only with a Bic pen and a loaded note pad. One empty beer bottle from a student grazed my neck. They weren't aiming at me -- typically, I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

It has been many years since I've dreaded a TV show as much as I dread next week's February sweeps extravaganza "The '60s," in which NBC will fictionalize, in two two-hour installments, the decade of America's wildest hopes and worst nightmares. (It begins next Sunday and concludes Monday, Feb. 8.) In fact, I haven't dreaded TV miniseries stupidity this much since NBC gave us "The Holocaust" -- complete with natural gas commercials during the death camp scenes -- a few decades ago.

I'll save whatever rocks and bottles I have for another time. There's a more important matter to discuss here -- for instance, one of the great miniseries achievements of '90s television.

It's "The Sopranos" on HBO, whose fourth episode (of 13) airs at 9 p.m. Sunday opposite the dregs of Super Bowl night. My advice is to tape it, no matter how combative the S-Bowl is or how festive is the S-Bowl party you're at.

"The Sopranos" is, literally, the talk of the town. It's the kind of show guys want to rehash and chuckle over whenever they get a few stray minutes. It isn't just a smash hit in Guyville, either.

Even in the era of "The Practice," "Ally McBeal," "Homicide," "NYPD Blue" and "The X-Files," the hourlong "Sopranos" is so far above everything else on the weekly TV schedule that it's a veritable sunburst of imagination.

It's from David Chase, previously of "I'll Fly Away," which is not exactly the credit you'd expect from the writer/producer who has given us what may be the definitive, droll portrait of Mafia angst in upper suburbia.

It's sometimes violent. It's usually funny in a way I haven't quite seen before. The first episode blew me away. Here was Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), Cosa Nostra middle management, passing out from anxiety at backyard barbecues, mourning the disappearance of ducks from his pool and unburdening himself to his leggy and beautiful shrink, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a graduate of Tufts University Medical School played by Lorraine Bracco. Needless to say, Dr. Melfi doesn't want to hear too many details of Tony's professional quandaries (RICO statutes, you know). She will, however, gladly accept his help at crowded restaurants when he walks in, notices her and, with a royal wave of his hand, ends her hourlong wait for a table. In her office, she listens to his anger and anguish and then sends him on his way with enough Prozac to get him through his weekly professional regimen of whacks, kneecappings and suspicious fires.

Forget "GoodFellas." These are mobsters who live in an aspirant suburban world where people discuss the novels of Zora Neale Hurston and are so deep into "The Godfather" that they know all about Gordon Willis' cinematography.

Buffalo's Nancy Marchand, on temporary leave from WASP dowager roles (think Mrs. Pynchon in "Lou Grant"), plays Tony's mother, so out of it she has to be put into a nursing home but not so out of it that she can't, with a silent shrug, give her brother-in-law -- Tony's Uncle Junior -- her blessing to perform a strategic hit on a family friend that will end a string of bedeviling hijackings.

That was Episode 3 last Sunday. Uncle Junior is old and wise but envious. He knows enough to counsel violent young hotheads, "Take it easy, we're not makin' a western here." But he envies his upwardly mobile nephew and doesn't think he deserves the mob clout he has.

Tony doesn't think so, either. He's tortured by nostalgia for the mob's good old days -- and everyone else's, too. "Nowadays, no values," he complains to Dr. Melfi. "Nowadays, people got no room for personal experience."

If only he knew.

His teen-age, basketball-playing daughter is sharing crystal meth with her best friend to get them through their SAT study sessions and choir rehearsals.

Tony himself makes the mistake of getting involved in a family quarrel among some local Hasidim.

When a stubborn Hasid refuses to buckle to Tony's beatings, he invokes, for Tony's benefit, the story of the handful of Jews at Masada who stood up to the hordes of Roman soldiers.

"And the Romans, where are they now?" asks the cocky young Hasid, blood dripping down his chin.

"You're lookin' at 'em," says Tony before threatening to castrate him.

Don't miss "The Sopranos."

Tape it. Pass it along to your friends. Save it. Remind yourself how distinctive and creative cable TV can be when it wants to.

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