NEW YORK - Even as "The Sopranos" returns Sunday with its first new episode since June 6, 2004, long-deprived fans can be pardoned for wondering: What took David Chase so long?
Clearing his head? Racking his brain?
It turns out that, whatever Chase was up to as he prepared to push beyond the 65 installments aired thus far, the "Sopranos" mastermind spent his time well.
To judge from four previewed episodes, the season that awaits us (9 p.m. EST Sunday on HBO) is richer, deeper and more thrilling than ever as it probes the world of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano.
How has Chase done it?
"I give a lot of weight to luck," he says.
A slight man with sad, seen-it-all eyes and a wry sense of humor, Chase has greeted a reporter to the "Sopranos" production offices at Silvercup Studios in Queens. The airy loft space is the polar opposite of the tomblike back office frequented by Tony (series star James Gandolfini) and his crew at the Bada Bing! strip club. Here are 30-foot ceilings and broad windows displaying the Queensborough Bridge arching over to Manhattan.
But despite the cheery setting, "don't get too comfortable" stayed on Chase's mind as he crafted this sixth season.
"We are here for a certain period of time," he says, trying to sum up the season's overriding theme, "and how much of your life are you gonna choose to spend with distractions? How do you make your choices? What is important?"
Sounds like, on some level, the end is closer than we think. Gulp.
Of course, fans are full of end-is-near talk concerning the show. Somewhat premature? A dozen episodes are ready to go, then another eight air early next year. That means almost one-fourth of the ultimate 85-episode "Sopranos" canon is yet to be seen.
Cold comfort for insatiable "Sopranos" fans. And in direct proportion to our growing dismay that the series must, indeed, eventually conclude is our gnawing curiosity: How will it all end?
Years ago, Tony Soprano imagined his options during a gloomy psychiatric session: "dead, or in the can."
But it will be Chase - who has a writing or co-writing credit on some 20 episodes and supervises all the rest, along with every other detail of the series - who will make that final call. He is the supreme being who concocts The Chart, from which all narratives and scripts emanate. The Chart, whose episode-by-episode and character-by-character coordinates pin down "The Sopranos'" destiny. The Chart is finished, Chase says.
Granted, it's subject to revision.
"Usually I try to stick to my first impulse," he explains. "But it could be that we get close to what I thought was gonna be the ending we planned, and something better will come along into our heads."
He notes that shooting will continue through December. Post-production won't wrap until next March.
So maybe the end ISN'T closer than we think.
Elsewhere in the Silvercup complex - Studio X - it appears to be business as usual. In the Soprano living room the latest family crisis is erupting. Teenage son A.J. (played by Robert Iler) has screwed up again.
"So," rails his mom, Carmela (Edie Falco), "every time I said to you, 'How's work?' and you said, 'Fine,' you were having your own private little joke on me?"
"What's going on?" says Tony, entering through the front door.
"I went to Blockbuster today to rent `Cinderella Man,'" Carmela fumes, "and guess what?"
"It still sucks."
"I found out that our son, the liar, had been fired three weeks ago!"
"From Blockbuster!" Tony is a mix of rage and bewilderment. "How the f--- do you do THAT? They got rhesus monkeys as managers there!"
But while shooting the scene, Gandolfini stumbles over a word. He lets out a frustrated growl. While the cameras reset, his meaty hand seizes his script (individually numbered and boldly labeled "CONFIDENTIAL") to check his lines.
The episode, airing late this season, is directed by Tim Van Patten, whose many "Sopranos" installments include last season's execution of beloved mob moll Adriana, as well as "Members Only," this Sunday's premiere.
A director of clearly diverse skills (his credits include 30 segments of "Touched By an Angel"), Van Patten is already waxing nostalgic.
"There's not gonna be a day I drive over the Queensborough Bridge and see Silvercup and don't think, 'Those were great days,'" he admits. "It's very strange to sense the end. No one says it out loud, but the actors are feeling it."
Steven Van Zandt feels it and he says it out loud.
The longtime guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, he made his acting debut as Silvio Dante, Tony's pompadoured consigliere. Growing reflective in his Manhattan office-studio (where he champions rock-and-roll on his nationally syndicated radio show, "Little Steven's Underground Garage"), he says he'll miss the "Sopranos" gig.
"It's such a mental vacation to be somebody else, to be out of my own world," he says. "Being Silvio is my meditation."
Thinking back on the lifestyle he has helped portray during the "Sopranos" run, Van Zandt can't help but laugh. For all the focus on the show's violence, much of how Silvio, Tony and the rest occupy themselves is playing pool at the Bada Bing! or sitting around in front of the pork store, reading The Racing Form.
"I think one of the most remarkable things David and the other writers have accomplished is turning a very mundane existence into something compelling," Van Zandt says. "When you look at what mob guys are doing today, it's not the Roaring Twenties."
It's just one more reason why "The Sopranos" was a very long shot to get a greenlight as a series, and no one knows that better than Chase. The premise: a basically unlikeable guy at the center of a mob drama. "How tired is THAT!" laughs Chase.
Even when the series got HBO's go-ahead, he figured it would air one year, tops. The first season's 13 episodes were in the can before the January 1999 premiere. And if a few plot strands were left dangling (item: where did "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero disappear to? Chase originally had no idea), he figured, who in the audience would care, or even notice?
Then "The Sopranos" caught on, but big. In Season Two, Pussy (a close Soprano operative turned FBI informant) had to be accounted for, and was, to his ill fortune. Through the subsequent run of "The Sopranos," the narrative strands would multiply and the series would expand into a population whose ever-more-entangled connections defy even Chase's own immediate recall.
"There are other writers here who remember more than I do," he admits. "What I probably have, more than anybody else, is a sense of the family Tony Soprano came from."
After all, the 60-year-old Chase was the only child in a New Jersey Italian-American family whose difficult mother famously inspired Tony's hateful mother, Livia.
"I have Tony's background in my head very clearly," says Chase. "I keep creating his back story as we go along, and it seems like I'm the only one who can do that, or should."
He points to psychiatrist scenes where Tony recounts his past to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco): "I think the other writers feel that I'm on more solid ground writing about that. Because they might go off some place where I would say, `THAT never happened' - not that ANY of it ever happened - more likely than I would say, 'I don't believe Tony would do this in the present day.'
"It's been enjoyable to see all those connections happen, and to have the history kind of branch out," he adds.
"I sort of made my bones on `The Rockford Files,'" he says, referring to the lighthearted 1970s drama about private eye Jim Rockford. "It was a great show to work on. But Jim never really changed, or his father, Rocky, or Dennis, the detective. Nothing interwove. That's how television used to be."
Chase would have been happy to keep "The Sopranos" a series of freestanding hours.
"HBO was more enamored of a serial structure than I was," he says, "but the first season I tried to keep the serial element to a minimum. My goal was to do a little movie every week about a different subject. That's always been what we tried to do. But over time, as the universe expanded, the serial elements have grown larger.
"I still hanker to do more stand-alone episodes," he says.
Indeed, this season's second episode, "Join the Club," which Chase wrote, sets in motion an underlying story of mistaken identity that could stand on its own as a modern "Twilight Zone" yarn.
Like most, that episode is sparked with dialogue where characters reveal themselves (to the audience, at least) as either clueless, or lying, or hiding from the truth.
In a tender moment, Carmela tells Tony, "You're a good father. You care about your friends."
Chase chuckles. "The best part of writing the show is that whatever the person is saying is not the real world. Everything is a lie, or at least 80 percent of it. 'I love you, T!' The character is habitually saying that which isn't. And that's fun."
Fun for the writers, and fun for the audience, who catch the oh-so-cagey characters as they expose themselves repeatedly.
So perhaps the viewer has been put on notice: Look for no grand lessons here from Chase, other than the human penchant for commingling untruths with the real thing.
And don't try to second-guess him on how the series will end. Not when Chase, who oversees perhaps the most meticulously executed show in TV history, can say, "Control is an illusion."
But even so ... er ... how about a few tea leaves for fans to read?
"I guess," Chase offers, "the question is: `Do we really believe that crime does not pay?'" He shrugs. "That's what we're told. That's what most gangster films have told us. Is there justice in the world?"
So, whatever it is that Chase happens to believe, that might have some bearing on the series' grand conclusion?
"Yeah, I think so," he says, mulling it over. "I think so."