Mary Kaye Schilling and Mike Flaherty
June 11, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

As we — and the major networks — fumbled our way through another ho-hum winter schedule, a classic tale was unfolding in the increasingly fertile environs of pay cable. An epic struggle, played out in the hinterlands of northern New Jersey, fueled by murder, bloodlust, and rip-roaring comedy. What, you might wonder, could trigger such a cataclysm? World war? Extraterrestrial invasion? Armageddon? No, a family of wayward ducks negotiating a backyard pool.

Episode 1 of HBO’s The Sopranos introduces us to Tony Soprano. Businessman. Husband. Father. Friend. And underboss of the Jersey Mob. Beholding his web-footed visitors one suburban morning, he’s devastated by their innocence, comes face-to-face with his own personal Rosebud, and watches his world begin to crumble. Tony plunges into an anxiety-ridden existential crisis: The rewards of his ever-shrinking world — the money, the power, the high-tech swag, the comares, the Monte Cristos — just don’t cut it anymore. And when he seeks help, all hell breaks loose, with his family — and his Family.

Twelve episodes (and three prescriptions, two murders, a restaurant ”torch job,” and innumerable Godfather references) later, a battle-scarred Tony concedes, ”Cunnilingus and psychotherapy brought us to this.” With HBO cuing up a replay of The Sopranos, we’re not about to disclose what this is — we want only to prepare the uninitiated for the television ride of their lives.

”It’s really a show about people who’ve made a deal with the devil,” says the mastermind behind Tony’s meltdown, creator David Chase. ”Tony is sort of a romantic guy who thinks a little too much for someone in his position. There’s some knowledge that things are out of whack, but he doesn’t know what yet.” To find that out, he begins seeing psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi.

”The whole life of crime is about never having to reflect on what you’re doing, because if you did, you’d come unglued,” says Chase. ”So it’s all an escape — keep it moving, keep it moving, hustle, gamble, scam — boom! — action, action, action.” And, therapy being the ultimate reflective act (a venue designed for disclosing secrets), Tony’s couch trip has his allies scratching their heads, his enemies sharpening their knives.

Their distress is understandable; psychiatry is only one aspect of contemporary American life alien to these latter-day wiseguys. As Tony declares to daughter Meadow during one cranky domestic exchange, ”Out there it’s the 1990s; in this house, it’s 1954.” Or so he’d like. ”He wishes he’d been born when organized crime was in its heyday,” says Chase. ”When they had more, controlled more, had judges in their pocket. It was more fun.”

One of the pleasures of The Sopranos is realizing that with their once-glorious empire crumbling indictment by indictment, these mugs are nearly as mystified by the Mob as we working stiffs are. More important: They too now look to Hollywood’s depiction of La Cosa Nostra for understanding and catharsis. The modern mobster is epitomized by hotheaded Young Turk Christopher, child of the E! channel and aspiring screenwriter, whose carping pursuit of power is equaled only by his desire for a story arc as explosive as Al Pacino’s in Scarface — or, as Chase puts it, ”the need to write a novel of [his] life.”

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