The first wonderful surprise of the 1999 TV season is here, and it's The Sopranos, HBO's new 13-week peek into the life of a New Jersey Mob family led by ''waste management consultant'' Tony Soprano (A Civil Action's James Gandolfini). It is the clever notion of series creator David Chase, who gave us the couldn't-be-more-different 1991-93 civil rights drama I'll Fly Away, to make Soprano's Mob family as unruly as his real family his grasping, lacquered-blond wife, Carmela (Oz's Edie Falco); his two wiseacre kids; and his tough but senile mother, played with Italian imperiousness by Nancy Marchand, who usually specializes in WASP imperiousness.
A tough guy with the soul of a neurotic, Tony has been having anxiety attacks, and Chase structures the series around Tony's therapy sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a straitlaced psychiatrist played, in a sweet irony, by GoodFellas' Lorraine Bracco. It's a brilliant conceit: Tony speaks of his insecurities and conflicted emotions; then we see him go out into the world to crack heads, consort with strippers, and rev his motor to run over idiots who owe him money.
The series is full of surprises, from its casting (Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band you know, handkerchief-headed Little Steven! makes a fine gangster) to its music (Elvis Costello's ''Complicated Shadows'' and the Young Rascals' ''You Better Run'' explode the soundtrack) to its constantly unexpected shifts of dramatic tone. And as Tony, Gandolfini gives a magnificently shrewd, wary performance. If, like me, you thought you never wanted to watch another Mob story, be sure to check this out. A