I gotta watch TV to figure out the world?'' asks silver-fox mobster Paulie (Tony Sirico) as the third season of The Sopranos begins. It's delivered as a tossed-off line, but as written by series creator David Chase, it reverberates on a few levels. You gotta watch TV to catch the series that haunts you like no other. Last season's Sopranos suffered somewhat from the sophomore jinx -- its style couldn't startle as much as its premiere run had: The show had to cope with the failing health of one of its crucial players, Nancy Marchand as the mother of James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano (Marchand died on June 18, 2000), and its season ender was a self-conscious Frank Capra anti-homage -- a sort of It's a Miserable Life. But on the basis of watching the first three episodes and another airing in April, I'd say the new Sopranos is as good as it's ever been -- ruthlessly emotional, cuttingly funny and frightening. After the long wait for new episodes, you realize that what you've really been wanting is to see Tony Soprano show up in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt on Temptation Island and smack the crap out of Billy and those other wussy dating-boys.
The new Sopranos finds Tony and his New Jersey suburban home life disturbed by FBI surveillants out to plant a bug in his house and get the goods on him for racketeering. The feds take their code name for the family from Tony's strip club, the Bada Bing: Daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) is ''Princess Bing''; her little brother, Anthony (Robert Iler), is ''Baby Bing.'' And Tony? He's ''Der Bingle.'' Makes you wonder if David Chase has been reading Gary Giddins' new biography of Bing Crosby.
Tony eluding the government is nothing new, but ''nothing new'' is the element that makes this season's Sopranos so satisfying. Yes, cagey character actor Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix) and a hairpiece have signed on to portray Ralphie, dead thug Richie Aprile's cousin, but where last season the show spent a lot of time introducing new characters and story lines, these opening episodes hone in on the stuff we like best: the inner workings of Mob life, family life, and Tony's mind. This week's double-shot opener grapples with the death of Livia Soprano in the second hour (Marchand appears, startlingly -- that's all I'll say), and next week the young wiseguy-dunderhead Christopher (the marvelous Michael Imperioli) becomes a ''made man,'' only to discover that life in this particular Italian fraternity is no great comfort.
Along the way, Chase and his directors bring Lorraine Bracco's psychiatrist Dr. Melfi more fully back into the series than she was for the entire last season. (Chase and company build their third episode around Tony recalling a childhood trauma after biting into a piece of capacolla. Dr. Melfi compares the luncheon meat to Proust's memory-inducing madeleine, thus neatly robbing hundreds of television critics nationwide of the chance to parade their knowledge of superficial literary references. Tony's response to Melfi's metaphor is, by the way, one of grave suspicion: ''Dis sounds very gay.'')
Bracco does her usual impeccable job of maintaining a blank professional front while communicating mild terror and, now, professional insult, since Tony, after three years of Prozac and chitchat, has grown impatient for a solution to his recurring panic attacks: ''This has gotta start showin' results or end,'' he tells her.
The nice thing about The Sopranos is that everything -- every subplot, every minor character, every musical cue (the premiere's highlight: Tony, singing along in the car to Steely Dan's ''Dirty Work'') -- yields results. The first season's most memorable episode -- Tony taking his daughter on a tour of colleges -- has resulted in Meadow attending New York City's Columbia University, where she's now dating a half-Jewish, half-African-American student who brings out the bigoted worst in her father. Indeed, the series' very first episode -- which, you'll recall, commenced with Tony mesmerized by ducks paddling in his swimming pool -- now proves a crucial element in our antihero's current psychic rift. (Apologies to Dr. Melfi, but The Sopranos has always had more to do with Jungian symbol analysis than with Freudian dream interpretation.)
Although Gandolfini plays Tony with infinitely modulated guile as a sleepy-eyed blusterer, never doubt this gangster, his violence, and his ability to adapt and fret. The season opener concludes with Elvis Costello furiously bleating ''High Fidelity'' on the soundtrack, and the choice is both apt (kudos again to music editor Kathryn Dayak) and ironic: The song is taken from Costello's 1980 album Get Happy!! -- a command this Mob boss only wishes he could obey. A
The Sopranos 9 PM SUNDAYS HBO