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‘The Sopranos’ won’t sing

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James Gandolfini

James Gandolfini

I've been to every TV critics' press-tour session for "The Sopranos" since the series began. The first one went really well; all the others have been, well, awkward.

Which is sort of, well, odd, given the praise that has been heaped on the show by the critical community. But creator/executive producer/writer David Chase doesn't seem comfortable or willing to talk about the show, and the actors have been told not to.

"Well, you know, we've been asked not to speak so it's really hard," said Lorraine Bracco.

"Who asked you not to speak?" Chase asked.

"We've been asked not to reveal things," Bracco said.

Mind you, we're not asking them to give away plot points. We're asking questions like — are you happy that the show has lasted as long as it has?

Big pause. "I am," Edie Falco finally says. "I am. I absolutely am, yeah."

Um, why?

"I've said many times I would do this for a long time," Falco said.

OK. . . .

"I am," Lorraine Bracco said, finally coming up with an answer to the previous question.

What about Gandolfini, who's made noises from time to time about not wanting to play Tony Soprano anymore?

"There's pluses and minuses. It's a dark, dark world and you're in it a lot. However, if you're going to be in a dark world, I can't think of any better one to be in," Gandolfini said. "The writing is still wonderful, and I love the people I work with, and I'm in New York City. There's a lot of pluses. . . . I still think I'm very lucky to be in it."

Whew! That was like pulling teeth.

Moving on . . . Mr. Chase, what can you tell us about this season?

"Give me a specific you want to know about," Chase said.

Well, I thought you didn't want to get specific. What kind of tone does this season take?

"What kind of tone does it take?" Chase repeated "These are very hard questions to answer."

Gee, sorry. So, why are you here?

Apparently, because HBO made him come so he could tell us (and our readers) that the theme of the upcoming season is "kind of disquieted, sort of rattled, not feeling like things are going well." Whatever that means.

It took some doing, but someone got Chase to say, "It's mostly keyed off of the fact that Johnny Sack has been arrested and is facing a large RICO trial for murder. And people have the chance to see a possible potential future for themselves in that. It has a ripple effect just like psychologically, I think, it would."

At least it's something.

Moving on . . . Mr. Chase, Ben Kingsley and Julianna Margulies are on your show this year — who do they play?

"Ben Kingsley plays Ben Kingsley and Julianna Margulies plays a real estate agent," Chase said. "Named Julianna."

OK, that's enlightening. Does Ben Kingsley really play Ben Kingsley?

"It's Ben Kingsley as himself," Chase said without further elaboration.

And what about Hal Holbrook, who's also doing a stint on the show?

"Hal Holbrook does not play himself," Chase said.

What sort of character does he play?

"Huh?" Chase said.

What sort of character does he play?

"Hal Holbrook?"

Um, yeah.

"He plays a scientist who used to work for Bell Labs in New Jersey and he's ill," Chase said.

Hallelujah! An answer.

It's easier to get whacked by a Soprano than get an answer.

Ah, well. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to live the pampered life of a TV critic.

WE DO KNOW a few details (very few) about the first few episodes of the new season:

On March 12, Tony shares a windfall with Carmela and goes on a backyard treasure hunt with Uncle Junior.

On March 19, Tony suffers from a case of mistaken identity on a West Coast business trip.

On March 26, Silvio divides the spoils of Paulie's latest score and heads off an impasse between Bobby and Vito.

To figure out what any of this actually means, you'll just have to watch.

AFTER TUESDAY'S TV COLUMN about "Commander in Chief" had been written, ABC execs decided not to air any episodes of the show this month.

"Chief" will return Tuesday, April 18, with the first of the seven remaining episodes.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com