The Sopranos: Barry Wetcher
Bruce Fretts
September 16, 2002 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The season’s first whack job and more nasty doings

After a summer spent gulping down the ”Coca-Cola moments” of ”American Idol,” watching the too-long-awaited fourth-season premiere of ”The Sopranos” felt like sipping fine wine — delicious and intoxicating. Penned by creator David Chase, ”For All Debts Public and Private” takes its title from a phrase found on U.S. currency, an apt source since no drama more accurately reflects the current state of the U.S.

The series dealt with the Internet boom two seasons ago when Christopher (Michael Imperioli) oversaw the Webistics pump-and-dump stock scam. Now that Wall Street’s bubble has burst, Tony (James Gandolfini) has seen his business take a hit. Bada Bing Club impresario Sil (Steve Van Zandt) claimed the only recession-proof industries are ”certain aspects of show business and our thing” (i.e. la cosa nostra).

But that didn’t stop Tony from hiding cash all over his house to provide for his family in the event of his arrest and/or death — the Mafia equivalent of a rainy-day fund. Tony may be a connected guy, but ”we don’t have those Enron-type connections,” he told wife Carmela (Edie Falco), who had suggested a meeting with her estate-planner cousin.

Despite its depressing economic tone, the episode still exuded the comfort-food quality of a family reunion (or, in this case, Family reunion). Every time a familiar face reentered, I felt like yelling out ”Paulie!” or ”Ralphie!” or ”Bacala!” like the ”Cheers” gang used to do with Norm.

Not that their lives are all cheerful these days. True, Bobby Bacalieri (Steven R. Schirripa) got a bump up, but his boss, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), found out his doctor’s office, where he’s been holding meetings with Tony, has been under FBI surveillance, probably by the nurse with whom Junior has flirted.

The feds are also getting closer to Tony via the undercover agent (Lola Glaudini) who’s been hanging out with Adriana (Drea De Matteo) and her drug-addled boyfriend, Christopher. In the hour’s scariest scene, the dopehead whacked a freshly-retired cop whom Tony claimed had killed Christopher’s dad long ago. Director Allen Coulter juxtaposed the murder with an old episode of ”Magnum, P.I.” blaring in the background, a sly reminder of how vastly superior ”The Sopranos” is to your average broadcast-network crime drama.

Still, Christopher’s better off than Paulie (Tony Sirico), who got busted on a gun charge while traveling to visit Dean Martin’s birthplace and is now stuck in the slammer. With Tony keeping a safe distance, his once-trusted lieutenant reached out to New York’s underboss for assistance, setting up the possibility of a Mob turf war later this season. Another promising plotline finds Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro) carrying on an affair with Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano), even as he’s still involved with Ro (Sharon Angela), the grieving mother of Jackie Aprile Jr. — whom Ralphie had whacked.

You think that’s complicated? Consider the double-dealing Tony’s doing with Junior. He agreed to help pay his indicted uncle’s mounting legal fees in exchange for an empty garage in Newark. What Tony didn’t tell him is that the property is near a new hotel-and-mall development project spearheaded by a corrupt councilman (Peter Riegert). Real-estate swindles may not sound as sexy as, say, the search for a new pop superstar, but Tony Soprano’s even more fascinatingly nasty than Simon Cowell.

What did you think of the ”Sopranos” season premiere?

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