The family hour returns

Special to The Times

Carmela SOPRANO is beset by bears. Overturning her garbage, damaging her lawn, and generally freaking her out. Why, she wonders, "in the most densely populated state in the country," is she having to deal with bears?

An animal control officer gives her the short answer: It has to do with human encroachment on the black bears' natural turf and open garbage cans.

The long answer involves more amorphous issues like character development, the south of France and the personal preferences of David Chase.

"Audiences watch a TV series because they like to see their characters do similar things every week," says Chase, creator of "The Sopranos," HBO's gold-standard show. "That's just what I don't like about television."

If you don't believe him, just ask Edie Falco, who is freezing her kneecaps off shooting the bear sequence, which is a midsummer scene, in chilly November. Her Carmela Soprano is probably the most conflicted character on TV, a mob wife who desperately wants to be a normal suburban housewife, yet enjoys the perks of her husband's career. Chase, however, felt that she was getting into a rut.

"We had this great actress and here she is complaining all the time," he says. "And I was saying to myself, 'Well, do something about it!' I mean, she puts on blinders, she knows what he does. So if you really don't like it, get out! Change it! Or make him change. None of that ever happened. To me she became a kind of shrew. 'Take responsibility for yourself,' I began to say. So she did. She threw him out."

That was in the last cliff-hanging episode, which ran in December 2002. The fifth season debuts March 7, which means the audience will have waited an agonizing 15 months to return to the world of the Sopranos and their associates.

The reason for such a long hiatus is twofold: HBO's need to schedule other new series like "Carnivale" and "K Street," and Chase's aversion to the rigidity of traditional network scheduling concerns. Audiences want their television shows to show up at similar times every year, and that's just another thing he doesn't like about television.

"I don't know why a TV series has to come out at the same time every year," Chase says. "HBO and I talk about it, and they say they have new shows they want to try, and they're not sure how to program them. So when they say, 'We could give you extra time,' I never say no."

And off he went to the south of France for a little R and R, moving his characters around in his mind like so many chess pieces. The hiatus was met with general approval and a little irritation. "It recharges everyone's batteries, so that is creatively good," producer Henry Bronchtein says. "But there's a downside, in that it's expensive. We wind up holding sets, we have stage and warehouse space to rent, and we may have to restaff positions."

Or shoot summer scenes in the middle of winter. And now there are the bears. Not just any bears. New Jersey bears.

Plotting the flow

It's fun playing God. You can tell that from Chase's obvious delight in the show, and the way he can analyze his characters with the subtlety of his own Dr. Melfi. In the beginning, there is the spreadsheet. Well, it looks like a spreadsheet, but it's really just a series of 8 1/2-by-11-inch pieces of paper tacked to a wall in the production offices of "The Sopranos" at the Silvercup Studios in Queens.

On these sheets, Chase has written down the 13-episode story arc of all the major characters in the show, from Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini) to Bobby "Bacala" Baccilieri (Steven Schirripa). Written at the top of each piece of paper is an episode number, and down the left-hand side, a character name.

In between, in grid-like fashion, are plot elements. And there are handwritten arrows and circles connecting various parts of the mix.

There are also larger thematic issues to consider:

Year one was about Tony as Livia's (the late Nancy Marchand) son.

Year two was about Tony as Janice's (Aida Turturro) brother. The next year focused on Tony and Carmela as parents, while the most recent story arc was about the Sopranos as a couple.

Year five zeroes in on family issues, both personal and mob-related. Which is why Carmela is facing down those rampaging bears instead of having Tony just take them out.

"So I come back from France with a chart of every character over 13 episodes," he says. "What happens here, what happens there, how do things intermesh. Then I show the chart to the writers and ask, 'What are we going to do that really interests us?' Separate stories sometimes emerge, and the chart sometimes becomes just connective tissue."

In the end, however, Chase knows exactly what he wants from the show, including how it will end. Originally, he thought he could do it in five seasons. But when he finished the fourth season, he had enough material for two more.

When asked if there is any amount of money that would persuade him to extend "The Sopranos" beyond six seasons, Chase's response is a succinct "no."

"I do feel a certain amount of pressure that 'my God, it'll crap out,' " Chase says, "but I think you have to please yourself first, and that's hard enough. I always want the show to be different all the time. But it can't be too different, because then you sell out the characters, or they're doing things nobody recognizes. So making it different enough to keep me interested and committed to the characters and yet not have it be some strange iteration of itself, that part is difficult."

Ask him to name his favorite episodes, however, and a big smile creases his face. He mentions "College," from the first season, in which Tony takes daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) on a college visitation tour and garrotes an informer along the way; "Amour Fou," from season three, where Tony's crazy mistress Gloria (Annabella Sciorra) asks him to choke her to death; and "Pine Barrens," from the same season, when Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) and Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) lose a body in the wilds of South Jersey.

Chase believes in keeping things real. He stays current on all the latest mob news as reported in the New York papers and the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, the large North Jersey daily that would most likely be read by the characters in the show. And what he has learned over the years has caused him to structure the organized crime elements of the series in a very particular way.

"Tony Soprano as the boss of a crime family in reality doesn't have a lot of problems," he says. "The boss of a crime family in this day and age is pretty well insulated from most of his problems, except for law enforcement. There are not a lot of gang wars. We have a lot more killing on our show than there really is, I think. Even there I've tried not to overdo it. Because what's interesting to me more than that is the daily life, which is kind of tedious; it's gambling and collecting money and eating."

It always comes back to the mob

Still, a mob drama has to have a certain amount of, well, mob drama. "So I say, 'What are Tony's challenges?' And they have to be embodied by someone, some character. Richie Aprile [played by David Proval], was a threat to Tony, he wanted Tony's position. Ralphie [Cifaretto, a memorable Joe Pantoliano performance] started out to be another contender for power, but he became a different sort of guy, a loose cannon who was a danger to Tony in other ways."

A year or so ago, Chase read that a lot of mobsters busted under the RICO statutes in the 1980s and 1990s had served their time and were getting out of jail. He refers to them as "the class of 2004."

And so now Steve Buscemi plays Tony's cousin who has recently gotten out of jail and wants to go straight. "He was in jail for truck hijacking," Buscemi says. "He has to take a civilian job to make money, and he's not crazy about it."

Several other characters are also finishing their sentences. "That's a real thing," Chase says. "The police in New Jersey are concerned how that will affect the situation over there. So that's what this year is based on, those guys coming back into society."

Chase's original idea for the series was a mobster in therapy who realizes his mother is his own worst enemy. Family, then, is at the root of everything that happens in "The Sopranos." So when Chase describes the basic thrust of season five, he might as well be talking about the series as a whole.

"We always talk about family, and how important it is," he says. "And blood, and what that means. My mother always used to tell me 'Your friends will abandon you, but your family will always be there for you.' I don't necessarily believe that that's true. And to a certain extent, that's what Tony Soprano espouses. So it's really about that: What are the limits of family, and what does friendship mean?"

Of course, this year will also see a continuation of Tony and Carmela's marital strife, but no one will say how that plays out. And in a sense, it doesn't matter. "The Sopranos" has any number of viewing constituencies, from those who are obsessed with Carmela's conflicts as a wife and mother to those sitting around wondering what character will be bumped off next. There are viewers who will never forgive Chase for killing off "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero, and others who are waiting for the slimy Christopher to get what he deserves. But no matter what their expectations or disappointments, the audience keeps coming back.

"The show feels the way life does," Falco says.

"Just when you think you have an idea of the way things are going to go, they do a complete turnaround on you. People recognize their own lives in it, and that's why they want to stay tuned in."

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