That dour sly fox David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, threw us off the scent a bit when he recently said that the new, so-long-awaited installments of his Mob saga would be primarily about the marriage of Tony (James Gandolfini) and Carmela (Edie Falco) Soprano. Looking at the first few episodes of the fourth season, it's clear that the larger context is the big-F and little-f family business. Homing in on our plunging economy, ''The Sopranos'' now finds Carmela taking an aggressive, slightly panicked interest in her suburban clan's finances and studying for her real estate license; in response to her queries about tax shelters and hidden assets, Tony sneers, ''We don't have those Enron-type connections.'' (If there's one thing Tony's learned over the past few years, it's that as hard as he and his cronies try, legit businesses and the government will always trump the Mob for organizational control and acquisitiveness.) A bit later, Tony berates his gangland captains at a top-level meeting for the ''zero growth in this Family's receipts!''
The latest episodes are magnificently acted; there's a moment at the start of the season premiere when Tony, sullen in a bathrobe, shlumps down his driveway to pick up the morning paper, and Gandolfini's posture, his empty gaze, summarizes three seasons of Tony's low cunning, the awful weight of his sins, and the burden of his leadership. The tone of the series is now gloomier, slower, and meaner in a couple of senses: more cruel in the punishments meted out to those who cross the mobsters, and stingier with the lighter moments that often serve to excuse these voluble dimwits' worst behavior. When Chase told TV reporters that the year-and-a-half series hiatus had induced a self-imposed pressure that made him a ''miserable s---head'' to be around, we can see that he's used that mood to give the morose, pessimistic tone of the opening episodes a necessary relentlessness.
As before, Chase and his writers sprinkle pop-culture references throughout the new season -- ''Harry Potter,'' Steven Spielberg, and the current crisis of the Catholic Church are all mentioned at various points. But they are offered gratuitously, with almost ostentatious contempt -- like slaps in our faces, as if the filmmakers were saying, ''Is this the cute stuff you punks want? Here, laugh your knowing asses off!'' We may glimpse Adriana (Drea de Matteo), fiancee of Michael Imperioli's young captain Christopher, watching ''Everybody Loves Raymond,'' but this series is turning into ''Everybody Hates Tony.'' Certainly, the big guy is beleaguered, beset by woes on all sides. At work, important business details and gossip are being leaked by someone in his inner circle, which has basically tightened to Christopher, Silvio (Steven Van Zandt), and Joe Pantoliano's Ralph, since Paulie (Tony Sirico) is in jail, convicted on a cheeseball concealed-weapons rap.
At home, Tony's inattention to Carmela has resulted in simmering hostility and her startling, not very convincing flirtation with the ponytailed muscle-head Furio (Federico Castelluccio). The best scenes thus far are between Tony and daughter Meadow (the ever more sly and adept Jamie-Lynn Sigler), who's still the apple of Daddy's eye, even when she's driving him crazy -- threatening to skip her sophomore year at Columbia and scamper off to Europe to enjoy what she calls ''the restorative nature of travel.'' No show on TV captures so adroitly the lightning-quick flashes of anger and love that pass between father and daughter.
And what of Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco)? Her sessions with Tony have had a been-there, analyzed-that feel, and an upcoming subplot involving her therapist (Peter Bogdanovich) seems shoehorned into the series, disrupting the flow of action.
There's a sense in which the lag in time between the third and fourth seasons has resulted in scripts that have been too carefully crafted; the ironies and parallelisms are sometimes overworked, excessively neat. A scene of Christopher shooting scag after a hard day's work is followed by Tony scarfing an ice-cream sundae (we get it: Both men have their addictions). The premiere features a hammering piece of music sung by ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon, in which he yells, ''The human race is becoming a disgrace!'' (Tony would despise the tune but agree with the sentiment). Both the song and the episode name-check the 16th-century seer Nostradamus, foretelling a doom implied for some major players. And squirrels have replaced the now-legendary ducks in the Sopranos' backyard: Ah, Tony's life goal has gone from wanting to feel just ducky to trying to keep from going squirrelly.
When ''The Sopranos'' becomes a pop-culture experience about catching cultural references, something's a bit amiss. Still, ''The Sopranos'' -- bursting with livid energy and daringly rotten at its core -- is full of scenes that'll leave you breathless in their audacity, goofball non sequiturs, and profound cynicism.