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The American people – at least those who can write the check for cable HBO – have collectively raised a mirror to themselves. Guess who’s staring back? It’s Tony Soprano, or to be precise, the entire Soprano family.

Many Americans applaud (not this writer, at least concerning capital punishment) when convicted murderers are sent to Old Sparky, when pornographers are run out of neighborhoods, when hit men get hit, hookers hooked, corrupt pols sent up to the local Club Fed and crooked union officials busted. But broadcast a series in which the “hero” does all this and worse, and suddenly, our country’s streets are full of guys sporting “Bada Bing” T-shirts.

What gives?

For starters, HBO is carrying on in the same tradition set by the Roman Emperors, who ruled according to the maxim, “Bread and Circus.” Keep the people fed and entertained, and complaints will always be at a minimum. And in an odd way, watching “The Sopranos” does bear a similarity to gladiators fighting to the death or people being fed to the lions – it’s pure fantasy, and allows the crowd at the coliseum (or around the TV set) to project all of their angst onto the action.

What angst and what action?

In our bureaucratized, globalized world of today, in which we seem to be governed by forces beyond anyone’s control – lying CEOs and politicians, multinational corporations with branch offices everywhere and accountability nowhere, the shadowy terrorist living next door, or a government that doesn’t answer the phone (“If you speak English, press 2″), the figure of Tony Soprano is compelling.

Lost your pension fund to Enron crooks? Send Paulie to break a few legs. Lost your job? Send Furio to make your former employers “an offer they can’t refuse.” Unhappy with the abysmal job the CIA did in preventing the 9-11 attacks? Ask Chris to have a few words with them. You see, in “The Sopranos,” Tony never has a problem getting his calls returned, his car fixed, a good seat at a restaurant or a politician who won’t return his calls. In that sense, Tony Soprano is a fantasy figure who can do what we can’t – get things done, deal “justice,” and get respect.

But there’s a lot more to the show than just Don Tony. There’s the rest of the family too. There is Tony’s wife, Carmella, who is being two-timed by her husband in ways that even a Ken Starr could never dream of. A faithful, long-suffering wife, there are probably a lot of women out there in “real-time” land who can identify with Carmella. Do you have adolescent children? Then the two kids on “The Sopranos” might be yours. College-age Meadow Soprano, mouthy, defiant and ungovernable in a way that if she were say, one of Tony’s debtors, he would have her clipped faster than you can say, “Fuggetaboutit.”

Tony’s other kid, a semi-wild adolescent boy named Anthony Jr., is a truant, cheats on his tests, vandalizes his school and keeps getting booted out. Clearly, he knows what the old man does for a living, and may be the least-hypocritical character on the show. If lying and cheating is good enough for dear old dad, the kid figures that it will work for him – which so far, it has.

And if you have cranky, aged relatives, past their prime and unwilling to admit it, then Uncle Julius is your man. Chiseling siblings? Sister Janet could teach them a thing or two. In short, the entire family, in their caricatured way, looks an awful lot like yours and mine – perhaps without the homicides.

This show is an “Ozzy Osbourne” for the upper middle classes. But “The Sopranos” – so unlike our lives and yet filled with characters so recognizable – projects a power that viewers can only dream about. The antihero is no longer a cowboy or a streetwise detective but a fellow suburbanite whose life provides just enough verisimilitude to make the details convincing.

The chattering classes have cheered it on – not in spite of, but because of its anti-politically correct nature. Devoted followers of the show know that Tony is a foul-mouthed racist – ethnic slurs abound, as do sexism, homophobia and a litany of other politically incorrect crimes. Columnists who would denounce this behavior in print, watch “T” and are amused.

Why? Because HBO has liberated a corner of television in which anything goes, including all the current pieties – right out the window. It’s the same thrill a kid gets when he scrawls a dirty word on a wall, smokes a cigarette in the basement or litters when nobody’s looking.

For an hour each week, “The Sopranos” free the viewer to do everything he or she has wanted to do but can’t.

I’ll be watching Sunday night.

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