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‘Providence’ Is Flat but ‘Sopranos’ Really Sings

Get ready for dueling family values.

Wallowing in schmaltz is “Providence,” tonight’s new weekly drama from NBC about a Rhode Island household so cloyingly maudlin and warmhearted that heatstroke is possible just from watching. Almost immediately, one family member keels over and dies. Worse news: The rest survive.

The setup has a noted cosmetic surgeon to the stars dropping her L.A. career and riches to return to her Providence, R.I., hometown where she cuddles up in her old room and finds contentment living with her family and treating the poor at a medical clinic. Yes, nose jobless but happy.

“Providence” doesn’t just tug on your heartstrings, it attacks them with the Jaws of Life.

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Kicking butt, though, is “The Sopranos,” HBO’s raw, violent, witty, captivatingly dark hour about a complex, shrink-treated New Jersey Mafia boss beset by inner turmoil, panic attacks and as many crises at home as at the “office.”

His work no longer brings him satisfaction, Tony Soprano laments when starting therapy. Asked what he does for a living, he replies: “Waste management consultant.”

Soon, though, the euphemisms fall away, heads are bashed and Tony himself is taking a battering on the home front.

A serious series about a Mafia capo who is nearly as likable as he is menacing? Talk about your creative risks. HBO is famous for zooming ahead of the field by taking hairpin curves at full speed, and “The Sopranos” is another gleaming hood ornament on that chassis.

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Creator David Chase balances insider/outsider views of a crime subculture--one view sympathetic, the other unsparingly harsh--not unlike the way Francis Ford Coppola approached the Corleones in the “Godfather” movies.

Although less somber, “The Sopranos” also elevates pulp fiction to art. Arriving Sunday, it blows off TV convention just as Tony and his co-mobsters reject the laws of society, even while his wife, Carmela, earnestly lectures their rebellious daughter Meadow about values: “You can’t just lie and cheat and break the rules you don’t like.”

Such moral discord and inconsistency epitomize the first four episodes of “The Sopranos,” as they do many real-life U.S. households that aren’t sustained by crime and thuggery, and don’t hide thick rolls of cash in the kitchen. Hands down, it’s the series of the season, the irony being that family relations are addressed more honestly, thoughtfully and believably here--its brutality notwithstanding--than in kinder, gentler “Providence.”

The two series do intersect in an unlikely way, with a respect for animals mirrored by sensitive patriarch Jim Hansen’s intense devotion to them at his vet clinic in weepy “Providence,” and by tough guy Tony Soprano’s doting tenderness Sunday toward a family of wild ducks that recently began residing in his swimming pool.

“Him . . . with those ducks,” Carmela (Edie Falco) huffs about Tony (James Gandolfini), who is so enraptured that he regularly wades in and feeds them, and cheers like a Little League pop when the ducklings attempt to fly.

When all the ducks leave one day, Tony collapses from intense mental stress, something that he relates to his therapist (Lorraine Bracco), with whom he chats throughout the series while noting her long, shapely legs. She puts him on Prozac and concludes that his panic over the ducks relates to his fear of losing his own family. But which one?

There are two overlapping families that drive Tony’s neuroses. One is the criminal bunch, which includes his chillingly murderous uncle and rival, Junior (Dominic Chianese), and his wildly careening hothead of a nephew, Christopher (Michael Imperioli). In the other family are Carmela, the two Soprano kids and Tony’s nasty, dour, belligerent mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), an aging widow whom he is trying to persuade to give up her house and enter a $4,000-a-month retirement facility.

And whom he treats royally, but is unable to please. “Ohhhh, look who calls,” she responds snidely when he phones, adding to his guilt.

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Gandolfini and Falco are excellent, as is the supporting work of Imperioli and others. And that grande dame of troupers, Marchand, is so coldbloodedly plausible as Livia that her eyes are ice and you can almost hear her heart freezing over.

Although accidentally setting her kitchen afire and running over a friend with her car, and being generally unable to care for herself, Livia remains as tough, formidable and ruthless as anyone in this series. She seems to acquiesce approvingly, in fact, when Uncle Junior hints at muscling out Tony at the end of Sunday’s hour. And several episodes later she endorses whacking a troublesome young thug. Not a nice mama, nor are the Sopranos a family Charles Kuralt would have visited.

Nonetheless, Tony’s conflicts with his mother, and worry about her future as she grows older and more difficult, are truthfully depicted agonies that the Sopranos share with much of America.

As are the trials of parenting, with Carmela lecturing Anthony Jr. (Robert Idler) about “the value of a dollar,” for example, and accusing Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler) of “conniving and lying” for denying she sneaked out after being grounded. Kids!

On the other hand, Meadow sings sweetly in her high school choir, studies hard for her SATs, hopes to attend Berkeley and soon will be joined by Tony in checking out various college campuses.

Back in waste management, meanwhile, guys are getting clipped or clobbered, with future beating victims to include a pair of Hasidic Jews--an old businessman and his son-in-law--whose money feud brings them into contact with Tony.

This turbulence is seamlessly mingled with wry twists and ironies--as in Tony concluding that the only way he can save a friend’s successful restaurant is to blow it up--and dabs of humor suggesting that real-life mobsters imitate their mythic counterparts and think of famed crime-movie directors Coppola and Martin Scorsese as their Boswells.

One of Tony’s men, Silvio Dante (rocker Steve Van Zandt), regularly polishes his Al Pacino from “The Godfather, Part III” (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”). And when Christopher alludes to a noted killing in “The Godfather” by saying, “Louis Bratsi sleeps with the fishes,” he’s scolded by a colleague. “It’s Luca Brasi! Luca Brasi!”

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While this series rides a tall wave, “Providence” sleeps with the lox.

When L.A. plastic surgeon Sydney Hansen (Melina Kanakaredes) finds her live-in boyfriend cheating on her, she doesn’t kick him out and move on to the next liposuction. That would make too much sense. Instead, she inexplicably abandons her lucrative practice and palatial Malibu manse and flees back to simpler Providence.

Which she had fled the previous day after words with her younger sister, Joanie (Paula Cale); brother, Robbie (Seth Peterson); and veterinarian dad (Mike Farrell), following the funeral for her mother, Linda (Concetta Tomei).

When you die on “The Sopranos,” you stay dead. But “Providence” creator John Masius deploys the deceased Linda as a boomerang, having her regularly return to Sydney as a shrewish apparition and dispenser of clever advice.

Even while relentlessly depicting Providence as small-town Podunkville, this is one of those series in which nearly everyone communicates the same brand of Hollywood hip. As in a customer of Jim’s asking Sydney if it’s true she “sucked out Stallone’s extra chin.” And a working-class patient where Sydney works as a general practitioner telling her to “feel free to suck out the bags from under my eyes.” And Joanie telling Sydney: “It’s my life that’s taken a full Louganis [as in Greg] into the toilet.”

Thus, everyone speaks with the same oppressively glib voice. Everyone but Sydney’s father. Jim’s esteem for animals is highly admirable, but used by “Providence” in a shamelessly manipulative way. Farrell deserves hardship pay for having to tell an autistic little girl: “I’m a doggy doctor. Would you like to meet some of my friends?” At this point you’d hire Tony Soprano to euthanize the writer.

This scene happens in the context of Sydney coming off a triumphant string of L.A. boob jobs, coming up with a magic cure for the girl’s autism. In another episode, Sydney’s amazing work during an emergency--not an emergency penal implant--leaves everyone else in awe.

Her father compliments her on her performance. “Word travels fast,” she says. “Small town,” he says.

“Providence” gets most unbearable when, after both have lost patients, distraught father and daughter walk toward each other in slow motion to the beat of sad music. They’re devastated, depressed, shattered. Then they go out for ice cream.

Well, it’s a small town.

* “Providence” premieres at 8 tonight on NBC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

* “The Sopranos” premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence).


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