What you need to know before ''Sopranos'' starts. We take a look back at the past three seasons
The Sopranos
Credit: Sopranos Illustration by Gary Kelley
James Gandolfini

It’s likely that millions of words have been written about ”The Sopranos” since its premiere in January 1999, so you won’t mind if we add a few thousand more with the following complete episode guide leading up to the series’ fourth season. After a year-and-a-half hiatus, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that these are the most eagerly anticipated new episodes of any TV series in the history of the medium. (The Simpsons’ may be the only household to give the Sopranos competition as television’s foremost family, but where Matt Groening’s cartoon creation has been all about joyous excess, unbridled id, and a regular season order, David Chase’s live-action morality play is all about withholding, denial, and the interest accrued on an artistic loan nobody would dare collect until its creator is damn well good and ready to fork the film over.)

Fans, critics, and pundits have analyzed ”The Sopranos” as everything from cultural insult (just ask numerous antidefamation organizations that feel this portrayal of an Italian-American clan demeans an entire ethnic heritage) to spiritual metaphor (just ask Chris Seay, a Houston church pastor who has just released a beatification-minded book, ”The Gospel According to Tony Soprano”). But the ”Sopranos” phenomenon, for all of its myriad cultural manifestations, is at bottom so simple, even its network got it immediately. HBO initially ran ads saying ”If one family doesn’t kill him, the other family will.” Combine that with the fact that the cable network — worried that its ”Tommy Boy”-loving subscribers might think this was a show about opera singers — tried to get Chase to change the show’s title to ”Family Man,” and it’s clear that we don’t need to go over the whole family/Family, Mob-versus-suburbia, James Cagney-meets-John Cheever, Man in the Gray Concrete Suit thing once again.

What we can do, though, is ponder the major players in the saga:

TONY Were it not for his sociological milieu and his imposing girth, it’s entirely possible that Tony Soprano would have grown up a bookish weenie. Think about it: His mother bad-mouthed his male role model, his father; he was jealous of the closer relationship his dad had with his older sister, Janice; and he was in general a sensitive lad whose favorite school subject was history. Tony could have turned out soft — timid, even. Instead, of course, he became one tough mother of a father, husband, philanderer, intimidator, and leader of men. While perfectly capable of strangling a Mob informer or putting bullets into a close friend who’s betrayed him, Tony is also — unlike most of his colleagues in crime — burdened with a sometimes crushing sense of guilt (in the first season, over not being able to properly care for his ailing mother; subsequently, over being the source of his kids’ problems) that only a combo of talk therapy and Prozac can periodically stave off. Tony wants nothing more than for his children to escape the onus of continuing the Family tradition whose leadership he carries with greater weariness than a Bada Bing! stripper on her fifth straight hour sliding up and down the pole.

CARMELA At first, she seemed like a pop-cultural cliche: the Mob wife with shellacked hair and nails, who spoke as if she were popping chewing gum even when her mouth was empty. But Carmela Soprano, we have come to find out, lives as gracefully and openheartedly as she can with a man she knows loves her but keeps secrets from her. A doting mother who experiences her adolescent children’s steadily increasing rudeness and alienation as knife-stab pain, Carmela finds solace in religion (even though the family priest is a whiny mooch) and books (everything from self-help tomes to ”Memoirs of a Geisha”), and although she yearns to live a fuller life with her husband, she also appears doomed to have that wish denied her.

James Gandolfini
The Sopranos
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