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EntertainmentColumnistsVerne Gay

'The Sopranos' season 1: The best of the best

In homage to James Gandolfini, HBO on Demand is airing each season of "The Sopranos" over the next six months -- one season per month -- and in July, the first.

Great series are often at their greatest in their first seasons -- "The Sopranos" is a perfect example. Here are my favorite episodes from that epochal launch year, from January to April of 1999.

Just to be clear, there wasn't a bad episode in the entire bunch, so complete and so perfectly realized was creator David Chase's vision over that 13-episode run. But these seem to best distill what he set out to do -- tell a family story.

"The Sopranos" pilot Reputed north Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano collapses while preparing a barbecue during his son's birthday -- Puccini's famed "Doretta's Beautiful Dream" from "La Rondine" tracking in the background (dreams assume vast importance over the entire run, as part of the Soprano psychic landscape). His neighbor, Dr. Cusamano, suggests he see a psychiatrist, one Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) who prescribes Prozac and talk. And talk Tony does, as in this classic moment . . . "These days everybody's gotta go to shrinks and counselors and go on Sally Jesse Raphael and talk about their problems. Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong silent type? He wasn't in touch with his feelings. He just knew what he had to do . . . " Yes, Tony's conflicted -- most notably about this own mother.

"College" Tony and daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) go to Maine to look at colleges, when whom should Tony spot at a gas pump near the Colby campus in Waterville -- a former "associate," now in the witness protection program. And back on the homefront? Carm (Edie Falco) receives "spiritual" counseling from Father Phil (Paul Schulze). "College" usually tops most best-of lists for many reasons. Mine? Gandolfini's perfect balance-beam performance, of loving father and vicious murderer, and Falco's equally remarkable as well.

"Nobody Knows Anything" First of that incredible trio of episodes that ends the season, and my personal favorite. One memorable scene follows another, as Tony slowly realizes that his closest friend, "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore) has betrayed him; plus there's an amazing parallel story that stars John Heard as the corrupt and disgraced cop Vin Makazian. Meanwhile, Junior (Dominic Chianese) and dear treacherous mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) plan a hit on Tony; the monstrosity of the Soprano family values is laid bare.

"Isabella" A beautiful exchange student studying dentistry, a young woman from Italy, has decamped at the Cusamanos while they are away, and Tony notices her hanging her laundry. Over lunch with her, he has reveries about sex and motherhood, and his fantasies are later twisted into some sort of Oedipal longing -- for the mother he never had. Turns out Isabella was but a dream, a hallucination caused by the lithium.

"I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano" The season finale, where the Feds come crashing down on Junior, and Tony confronts Livia, who is stretched out on a gurney and wheeled down a hospital hallway. Tony hovers over her and yells -- "I know what you did, Ma!" -- and she smiles the ever-so-slightest Mona Lisa smile under her oxygen mask. And of course, that other remarkable scene, when Tony tells his closest associates that he has been seeing a shrink. Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) responds: "This thing of ours, where it's going, it would be better if we could admit to each other that these are painful, stressful times. But it'll never -- happen." Tony closes it all out over dinner with Carm and the kids at Nuovo Vesuvio, during a blackout: "Some day you'll have families of your own and if you are lucky, you'll remember the little moments like this, that were good."

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