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Mob Culture

With Tony Soprano and the made men, you never know who'll turn up in the talk soup; Sam Beckett, a man made for TV.

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So these two New Jersey wise guys are talking about the World Trade Center attacks, and one of them says to the other: "Quasimodo predicted all of this." What follows, in David Chase's script for the first new episode of The Sopranos since May 2001, is a discussion of the difference between Quasimodo and Nostradamus, a meditation on the hunchbacks and halfbacks of Notre Dame, and a welcome dose of absurdist humor just when we need it -- just when, that is, Nero Wolfe has been canceled by A&E because it actually cost money to produce; and Pardon the Interruption is preempted yet again on ESPN by senior golf; and Yancy Butler has charged up a pillar of fire into the Witchblade vapors, wearing a breastplate and a halo, as if she were both Madonnas.

We are immediately reminded that the cultural references in the HBO mob-family series -- to Frank Sinatra and Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Patton and Keanu Reeves, Jefferson Airplane and "Tennessee William," Marshall McLuhan and Marcel Proust -- are as unpredictable as the whacks. Or as Tony himself: Oedipus at Colonus, with a dead duck. I am not going to tell you that the first four episodes of the fourth season aren't talky. They are, mostly about money problems and rico prosecutions and Joe Pantoliano's love life (although Carmela also flirts again, and this time not with a priest). But while everyone is gabbing so much, they are also watching Dean Martin, Thomas Magnum, and Ray Romano on their TV sets. And Meadow, whose shrink wants to know if her dad ever molested her, is angling to quit college for Europe. And Silvio, when he isn't on E Street with Bruce, must defend the honor of Christopher Columbus against attacks by Native Americans. And this is not to mention fiber-optic cable, heroin between the toes, Dogma film theory, James Caan, Gary Cooper, "Ralph Fuckin' Bunche," and "Chef Fuckin' Boyardee."

More guys are almost whacked, popped, capped, or otherwise early-retired than so far actually get the business, though Christopher does more than his fair share "to create a little dysentery in the ranks." There is a lot of almost, which on The Sopranos usually means that we are warming up for a bloodbath. I miss Tony's murderous mom. But every time it occurs to me to say that the series hasn't been the same without her and seems to have no other interesting place to go, I remind myself of what else isn't out there. These songbirds are making most of the music.

Beckett on Film immediately follows the first new Sopranos with seven short plays turned into surprisingly sharp cinema. This is one of those pomo juxtapositions that work every which way including ironic. Samuel Beckett had almost as much trouble with his mother as Tony does, which is why he left Dublin for Paris in the first place. "I'm looking for my mother to kill her," claimed a character in The Unnamable. "I should have thought of that a bit earlier, before being born."

One of his biographers, Deirdre Bair, suggested that only a "womb fixation" could possibly explain his stuffing of so many people into trash cans (Endgame), mounds (Happy Days), and urns (Play). We see Play here, with Kristin Scott Thomas, Alan Rickman, and Juliet Stevenson sticking out of urns; it's electrifying, as if rap had been scored for severed heads. Also not to be missed is Catastrophe, with David Mamet directing Harold Pinter, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Sir John Gielgud. While Sad Sam never made it to New Jersey, he did sit through both ends of a Mets doubleheader at Shea Stadium on his only visit to the States. Maybe Tony is waiting for Godot.

September 11 Programming

Report From Ground Zero (September 10; 9 to 11 p.m.; ABC), based on Dennis Smith's best-selling book, follows firefighters from Manhattan's Ladder Company 16 through the attack, the aftermath, and the recovery. We hear not only from families who lost loved ones but from some of the men who originally built the towers.

America Rebuilds (September 10; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13) digs out from the sixteen-acre site where seven buildings were destroyed to imagine what happens next. Narrated by Kevin Spacey.

Visions From Ground Zero (September 11; 8 to 10:30 a.m.; Cinemax) features "From the Ashes -- 10 Artists," in which photographers, musicians, painters, and performance artists who lived in the neighborhood recall the awful day; "Underground Zero," a series of eight short films on the wounded American psyche; "Morning: September 11," about what the beautiful day looked like from the banks of Staten Island; and "WTC: The First 24 Hours," with Etienne Sauret's roving camera, ambient sound, and stark imagery, without music or commentary.

9 Views: 9/11 (September 11; 8 to 9 p.m.; Sundance) lets filmmakers like Tara Young, Ira Sachs, and Beverly Peterson think out loud about the events and their emotions.

Faces of 9/11 (September 11; 8 p.m. to midnight; Discovery, TLC, Travel, Discovery Health, and Civilization channels) emphasizes survivors and rebuilding. Portraits of Grief, on the main Discovery Channel, 8 to 9 p.m., is based on the Times series.

Other Programming in Brief

Almost a Woman (September 15; 8 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) is a dramatization of Esmeralda Santiago's memoir for Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection, with Ana Maria Lagasca as the 13-year-old who must grow up fast after her family moves from Puerto Rico to Brooklyn in 1961. Wanda De Jesus is the mother and Miriam Colón the grandmother who see her through the School of Performing Arts, Harvard College, and a master's in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence.

Big Deals: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (September 16, 9 to 10:30 p.m.; and 17 through 19, 9 to 10 p.m.; the History Channel) surveys an often appalling corporate scene, from Sony's gobbling-up of Columbia Pictures to Microsoft's acquisition of the dos operating system to what Seagram's did to MCA and Ray Kroc to the McDonald brothers, plus sidelong glances at I Love Lucy and RJR/Nabisco.

Obsessed (September 16; 9 to 11; Lifetime) stars Jenna Elfman as a medical journalist who is arrested for stalking a married doctor (Sam Robards) with whom she may or may not have had an affair, which is something not even her own lawyer (Kate Burton) seems to be able to determine, any more than I can determine why John Badham wanted to direct this.

The Sopranos
Sundays, starting September 15; 9 to 10 p.m.; HBO.
Stage on Screen: Beckett on Film
Sunday, September 15; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13.


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