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Television | North Caldwell, N.J.

The family hour returns

It's been a 15-month wait for the fifth season of 'The Sopranos,' and creator David Chase knows just where he wants to take his mob scene.

February 15, 2004|Lewis Beale | 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."

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