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Tony rolls the dice in a scene from this season's 'Sopranos'

HBO's The Sopranos has been called the best TV drama ever and the greatest work of American pop culture in 25 years. So naturally its creator, David Chase, wants to pull the plug on it next year. Why? "I'm just concerned," he says, "about this jump-the-shark thing."

"Jumping the shark," in TV parlance, refers to the moment at which a good show turns bad. The actors get bored; the plots become outrageous; next thing you know, as Chase puts it, "Paulie Walnuts" — one of the show's Mob captains — "gets abducted by aliens." There may be another warning sign: merchandising. This fall The Sopranos Family Cookbook, offering Italian recipes and anecdotes from the show's characters, hits bookstores. You can buy plans of Tony and Carmela's New Jersey rococo house and build one for yourself. And coming soon to your grocer: Sopranos gourmet foods, from pizza to marinara sauce (call it the it's-not-TV dinner). Can Sex and the City spermicidal foam be far behind?

Shot by Shot
Take a look at the new season of the Sopranos

The Usual Suspects
A guide to the show's characters

Which "Sopranos" character will get whacked this season?
Paulie Walnuts
Christopher Moltisanti
Ralph Cifaretto
Janice Soprano
Tony Soprano

Official Site: The Sopranos
The Sopranos: Family Values
Fan Site: Sopranoland Everything Jersey Sopranos

You can excuse viewers if they're literally hungry for a taste of their favorite New Jersey mobsters. It has been 16 months since the last new episode (a delay, says Chase, caused by cast illnesses and the long shooting schedule necessary to give the show its cinematic look). That's 16 nail-biting months since mobster Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) had his daughter's ex-boyfriend killed; his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) began studying for her real estate license and worrying about her complicity in her husband's crimes; his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), was recovering from her rape; son Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) was challenging Tony's parental authority; Mob captain Ralphie Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) was testing Tony's authority; and Paulie (Tony Sirico) was making overtures to a rival family.

But if you're one of those starving Sopraniacs, relax. Cheesy tie-ins aside, judging by the first four episodes of the upcoming fourth season (9 p.m. E.T., starting Sept. 15), the only sharks in the Soprano family's immediate future are the kind that wear pinstripes and tracksuits. In most respects, the episodes easily equal last season's, which in turn surpassed the show's 1999 debut for power, popularity — and controversy. Last season established The Sopranos as cable's highest-rated series ever, but it also drew renewed criticism for its unflinching violence, especially against women, in episodes showing a stripper's brutal murder, Dr. Melfi's rape and Tony's beating of his mentally ill mistress. Italian-American groups and some women complained, and the president of nbc sent a tape of one episode to other executives, asking how the show's envelope-pushing would affect TV as a whole.

Chase was incredulous. "I thought, 'Oh, so it's O.K. we've been killing all these men for three years?'" he says. Tony's mistress, he adds, "was a woman who was dating a gangster, who was very unhappy and sick and wanted to be killed. And here she is spitting in his face, threatening to tell his wife, and guess what? He doesn't kill her. I could make the argument that it was unrealistic, that he should have killed her. He's killed people for a lot less."

But enough history. What everyone wants to know now is: Who gets whacked this season? People die in the Mob, and Chase has killed off major characters before (including Vincent Pastore's "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero and Tony's mother Livia, after the death of actress Nancy Marchand, who played her). When HBO released an Annie Leibovitz promotional photo of the cast (see opening spread), the New York Post scrutinized it for clues as if it were the cover of Abbey Road. (Why is Paulie wearing a white suit? Is he with the angels?) But when it comes to secrets — down to admitting whether they appear in a certain episode — the cast members follow a strict code of omerta. Bracco gives a variation on the standard answer: "If you're gonna pay for 13 hours of TV, you have the right to be happily surprised." Last year, after gossip columnist Mitchell Fink published plot spoilers in the New York Daily News, Sopranos writers created a scene in which a homeless woman used his column as, um, thong underwear. So to keep myself out of any untoward body parts, here's fair warning: skip the next paragraph if you don't want to read spoilers.

In 2002, times are no better for the Sopranos than for the rest of us. The Mob's economy is in a pinch, despite Tony's ceo-style fulminations that the Cosa Nostra is supposed to be "recession-proof since time immemorial!" New York City Mafia underboss Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) is undermining Tony with his own people, and the feds have planted a mole in the heart of the Soprano family. Tony is back in therapy, but so are his sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). Most perplexing for Tony, his marriage may be unraveling; Carmela has a crush on one of his associates, and as I learned at a set visit during the shooting of the season finale in June, one character ominously offered Tony condolences on his "marital situation."

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