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2 HBO's Sunday Night Stars

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They are an unruly lot, stalking a remote part of the dial. They swear. They show skin. Worse yet, they give us terribly lifelike characters while refusing to wrap up plotlines in cute little bows just before the credits roll.

And to think, these guys are rewriting the rules of TV.

A triumphant triumvirate of Sunday night HBO series — The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under — stand this year as the toast of the tube, the kind of cathode rays that burst blood vessels in broadcast network execs’ necks by emitting high levels of emotion, intelligence, risk, and invention at once.

Witness The Sopranos. Has another show so richly served up an offending patriarch like James Gandolfini’s Tony, a Mob boss beset by his probing shrink, needy family, precarious business partners, and his own mind games? From conflicted Carmela (Edie Falco) to miserable, wisecracking Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), this cast pulled off the near impossible with a Jersey-Mafia template: Relatability. ”Each of us is magnificently flawed, as characters and as actors,” sums up Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi). ”And it’s all of those shortcomings that make us human.” The show delivered a superhuman third season earning an astounding (for pay cable) average of 8.9 million viewers and Emmys for Gandolfini and Falco. But according to series overlord David Chase, titillating, gutty story arcs — Melfi’s rape, Tony’s affair with manic-depressive Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra) — were just dirty business as usual. ”We try to make the [characters] feel the way we feel, and react emotionally the way we do — and…people are always full of surprises, you know what I mean?”

They do on Sex and the City. Cheered for its breezy, bawdy, pro-Prada POV on Manhattan singledom, the well-coiffed comedy got down and dirty in season 4, emotionally excavating its Fab Four core through Miranda’s (Cynthia Nixon) unexpected pregnancy and mother’s death; Charlotte’s (Kristin Davis) unexpected infertility and marital mayhem; Carrie’s (Sarah Jessica Parker) attempt to partner up for good; and Samantha’s (Kim Cattrall) lesbianics. ”Our goal was to go deep and suffer the consequences,” says Parker, ”whatever they were.” (How about the first-ever best-series Emmy for a cable network show?) Apparently, the timing was ideal to bring these characters’ slow burns to a boil. ”It’s not instant pathos, ‘Just add pathos and stir,’ like a lot of TV,” explains exec producer Michael Patrick King. ”Over the years, we’ve created really tough walls. In the funeral episode, Samantha cries, but not until she does 20 minutes of vibrators. So we tried to walk the balance between the tears and the vibrators.”

Emission accomplished. And HBO kept humming along with another tricky balancing act, newcomer Six Feet Under, which chronicles a messed-up family running an L.A. funeral home. Instead of focusing on death, though, creator Alan Ball crafted a wry drama that questions the very fabric of life by weaving in themes of authenticity, choices, and subconscious behavior. Even more striking than the signature twisted moments (missing foot here, aroused dead man there) is a killer bunch of eclectic, mercurial characters: pent-up mortician David (Michael C. Hall); his out-and-proud cop ex-boyfriend Keith (Mathew St. Patrick); rudderless prodigal son Nate (Peter Krause); his gifted, haunted girlfriend Brenda (Rachel Griffiths); and her creepy, arty brother Billy (Jeremy Sisto). ”The actors on this show love being challenged by behavior that they wouldn’t do in real life,” says Ball. ”Sometimes in TV, it’s like, ‘Cast the person who’s going to end up on the cover of magazines.’ I’m sorry, that’s just like ass-backwards. You find the actors who bring the characters to life in the way that is most compelling. At HBO, they let you do that.”

Three times in one year, if you’re really lucky.