By Terry Kelleher
Updated September 16, 2002 12:00 PM

HBO (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

After a 16-month hiatus for HBO’s acclaimed crime-family drama, Sept. 15 brings a sight for sore eyes: New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), paunch protruding proudly from his bathrobe, once again padding down his luxuriously long driveway to pick up the morning paper.

Just to break the monotony of critical approbation, I’d like to say The Sopranos has lost a step—but I can’t. The early fourth-season episodes point to continued creative excellence. You’ll be amused when Tony rants in the season opener about “zero growth” in his supposedly “recession-proof” business, and you’ll be riveted in the second episode when his daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) calls him a “Mob boss” and he advances on her with barely controlled rage. Michael Imperioli, who plays Tony’s restless nephew Christopher to near perfection, wrote the clever third episode, in which the Mafia crew fumes over a Native American group’s disrespect for Columbus Day tradition.

Creator David Chase may be accused of an overreliance on psychotherapy. Not only does Tony keep confiding in Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), but Meadow and Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro) also have shrinks this season. Nonetheless, The Sopranos remains a unique combination of brains, wit and raw power.

Bottom Line: Still tops