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LIFE IN THE POP LANE

Wait for new 'Sopranos' season is criminal

When I heard last week that actress Edie Falco had adopted a baby boy, my first thought was ''Will this delay even further the return of ''The Sopranos"?

Falco is the multiple Emmy award-winning actress who plays Carmela Soprano on HBO's brilliant, brutal mob series, which in addition to remaining TV's finest drama, is also distinguished by the most absurdly long hiatuses in television history. It's gotten so bad that last month I feared that if Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow on Groundhog Day, it would mean not just six more weeks of winter, but six additional months without ''The Sopranos."

When last we saw ''The Sopranos," New York mob boss Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) was in handcuffs, a surprisingly fleet-footed Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) narrowly escaped a similar fate, and everyone was still reeling from the ''disappearance" of the ill-fated Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo). That was back in June 2004 -- and there hasn't been a new episode since.

To make matters worse, ''The Sopranos" is not expected to return until sometime in 2006. (In an effort to give succor to hungry fans, the DVD release of the fifth season is scheduled for June 7.) And then, there will be only 10 episodes, for what is widely expected to be the show's final season. It's been reported that HBO is trying to coax ''Sopranos" creator and executive producer David Chase into a seventh season, but so far he isn't budging. ''There's no news on a seventh season. David Chase has publicly said the sixth season will be the last," an HBO spokesman said yesterday.

(The current hiatus has already had its share of off-camera drama. Falco was treated for breast cancer, and longtime director John Patterson died in February from prostate cancer. A friend and colleague of Chase since their days on ''The Rockford Files," Patterson directed such ''Sopranos" episodes as the second season's ''Knight in White Satin Armor," featuring the shocking murder of Richie Aprile, and last season's finale.)

Long spells of ''Soprano"-less Sundays are nothing new. There was a nearly year-and-a-half lull between seasons three and four, and a 15-month gulf between the fourth and fifth seasons of the series. Compare that with the average TV show which wraps its year in May and usually returns in the fall.

Of course, ''The Sopranos" has never been anything resembling average. Better written and acted that many big-screen offerings, Chase took what could've been little more than a one-note gimmick -- a mob boss in therapy -- and molded it into a series of remarkable depth and startling complexity. With his first-rate cast and crew, Chase has so immersed viewers in the personal and professional lives of these New Jersey mobsters, you can practically smell the gun smoke and taste the ''gabagool." (Better known among non-Italians as the deli meat cappicola.)

All this has earned Chase quite a reservoir of good will among devoted fans of the show, and without fail, every season has been worth the wait. Last season's marital jousting between the separated, then cynically reunited Tony and Carmela, Tony's handling of his recently paroled, out-of-control cousin Tony B. (Steve Buscemi), and especially Adriana's murder, finally earned the show a long-overdue outstanding drama series Emmy. (It could've won alone for the episode where Adriana got whacked; even though we all knew her demise was imminent, when Silvio pulled the trigger, it still took our collective breath away.)

Common knowledge has always dictated that Chase, who writes several episodes each season, is a meticulous perfectionist who refuses to be rushed into production, and HBO executives have no intention on messing with the makings of its franchise series. Still, these delays tax fans' patience and expectations. After each lengthy break, viewers' anticipation runs so hot and high, that each season is greeted with a flurry of disappointment and complaints that the show's quality has fallen off. Of course, that's never the case with those same people usually declaring every completed season the best ever.

At this time last year, season five had already begun. When it concluded three months later, it was assumed the show would return in a reasonable amount of time, if only to reward tolerant fans. There was even talk that Chase was shooting seasons five and six back-to-back, but alas, that was nothing more than a rumor.

Instead, we'll wait, and wait some more. Spring is here, and we'll probably be knee-deep in another bitter winter before we see Paulie Walnuts, Dr. Melfi, or Vito Spatafore again. And we know that as much as we grouse and gripe about the delays, we'll be happy to again plan our Sunday evenings around the fictional doings in northern New Jersey -- and don't think for a minute that Chase and HBO aren't banking on that as well. They know that we may hate the wait, but when ''The Sopranos" returns -- in 2006? 2007? -- so will we.

Renée Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column appears on Tuesdays. She can be reached at graham@globe.com

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