We cannot help but like a man so daft that the happiest moment of his day is wading into his swimming pool, fully clothed, to greet some ducks. He is so touched by the arrival of the wild birds, and so are we. Tony Soprano can barely cope with all the angst of family life, to the point that he can cry about ducks and has to consult a psychiatrist. We like him more. But the man who oozes warmth is not really nice. He is also a brutal mobster, though in this amoral world that does not undermine our affection. Tony heads The Sopranos (Pearl, 9.35pm), the extraordinary series that was rejected by network television in the United States but became the television event of the year on HBO. But despite being a popular and critical success, it was overlooked in the more official Emmy accolades, winning only four awards from its 16 nominations. Though it did win the outstanding writing award, there was much surprise when James Gandolfini, who plays Tony, did not scoop the best actor prize. The Sopranos is indeed special. The pilot episode is created, produced, written and directed by David Chase, making it the closest to auteur television we will get from America. Shunning audience-friendly formulas, it is no surprise that the regular networks passed it over. That proved a mistake as audiences showed they were ready for something different from regular encounters with hospital emergency wards, police and legal work and the supernatural. The Sopranos would seem even more original if it were not for Analyze This, the movie featuring another psychologically vulnerable gangster released this summer. But The Sopranos is no copy-cat and was in fact made before the movie. Tony's sessions with Dr Jennifer Melfi, played with wonderful understatement by Lorraine Bracco, are used to more profound effect to explore the stresses of being both a member of the mob and a family man. This episode's unusual style lies in its understatement and the lingering camera work, both revealing more quirky character than is normal in commercial drama. The suburban New Jersey locations also bring a freshness to Los Angeles-dominated television. Chase delivers a carefully-balanced mix of human realism, including the comic moments of life, and violence. The series appeals to audiences' endless fascination with the mob, with the brutality an integral part of the lifestyle. But it is a reflection of what it takes to create a successful series that the violence is also a must for sheer entertainment. The family saga is easy to follow. But those not familiar with Italian-American mob culture and the lingo from The Godfather movies will need to check out the HBO Web site ( www.hbo.com/sopranos ) for a glossary of the language you need to follow the gangster plots. I may not be the only one who initially takes Tony being in the waste-management business at face value.