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When it comes to 'Sopranos,' I'm glad to be kept waiting

Thank you, David Chase, for being a darn slug.

Thank you for protecting the best interests of ravenous ''Sopranos" fans when planning your production schedule. Like a good parent, you've saved us from ourselves and from our insatiable hunger for more candy, always more candy. By taking an audacious 21-month absence between seasons of ''The Sopranos," you've only made my heart grow fonder.

And I'm sure it hasn't been easy. HBO has probably been as persistent as a caffeinated telemarketer in urging Chase to shoot a new batch of episodes. ''The Sopranos," which returns next Sunday at 9 p.m., is still the pay channel's most valuable signature franchise. And fans have been bellyaching and belly-blogging about the lack of a season 6 since the day season 5 ended in June 2004, with Tony ambling away from Johnny Sack's house through the snow. Like trained TV-watching monkeys, we've become so conditioned to expect a network production pace that we whine when quality-minded forces such as Chase subvert that faulty system. It's 22 episodes a year or bust.

But remember: Big-screen filmmakers often have the luxury of years to perfect just two hours of film, and yet we ask TV talent to churn out exceptional new material on the fly like, well, newspaper writers. Maybe that's why ''The Sopranos" has become Exhibit A in the ongoing argument that TV can be as good as if not better than the movies. The show is a serial, for sure, but its creators take enough time to fashion the rich scripting, editing, and acting of a top-notch theatrical release. With Chase leading them, for instance, they had the opportunity to make Tony's 20-plus-minute fever dream into something artful and psychologically knowing.

With all due respect, even network TV gems such as ''Lost" suffer from the Great Network Episode Suck. Right now, ''Lost" is a good adventure mystery that gets more watery with each new hour, as the writers rush to stretch their story across 22-episode seasons that will probably stretch across this decade. Midway through its second year, after 38 episodes, the ABC hit is already redoing old material in its character back stories, and its ever-complicated mythology poses the risk of an ''X-Files" plot flameout. Think about how tight and eventful ''Lost" could be if it had the advantage of intermittent, 13-hour seasons. If ''The Sopranos" had to bang out filler to feed an ad-driven TV beast every year, it too would become a bit of a baggy monster like ''Lost."

As a result of the time Chase takes between seasons -- 16 months between 3 and 4, and 15 months between 4 and 5 -- he has been able to exercise the care, focus, and intelligence that leave us wanting more of Tony, Carmela, Meadow, A.J., and the crew. Without an elongated production break for Chase, there would be no ''Sopranos" as we know it. If the show had aired on Fox as originally planned in the late 1990s, he'd probably have had to expand Meadow's college life into a WB-like subplot to fill up time, and he probably would have needed to spell out mob plot points over and over again. Instead, Chase can keep things compact and honor the viewer's ability to parse them out. That kind of compression can't be hurried.

And the fact is that, generally speaking, Chase does not disappoint. His show is well worth waiting for, even if dissenting fans might disagree as they continue to grieve season 1. Chase and HBO stand as proof that fewer hours can mean more impact. If the 65 already-aired episodes of ''The Sopranos" had run in 22-episode chunks, the show would have had only three seasons so far. And those seasons would have flown by. Instead, it feels as though ''The Sopranos" has been among us for a sizable period -- certainly longer than a three-season series such as ''Cold Case" or ''Two and a Half Men."

Chase also deserves credit for holding out as a cultural rebel. Yes, financial negotiations with HBO have probably played a role in his extended delays. But no matter how dodgy he has been, and no matter how much money he has earned, he's still upending the greedy, feed-me-now rules of pop entertainment. By making HBO wait, and making viewers wait, he is challenging a decidedly unsatisfying status quo. He is pushing us to consider the creative merits of slowing down, of not forcing out new product, of making TV into something more than a busy cotton-candy machine.

I know, waiting for new ''Sopranos" episodes isn't fun. And after this run of 12 episodes, the show will retreat yet again, until January 2007, when the final eight shows begin. But I have a feeling that after the series finale next year, when the show is gone for good, we'll even begin to miss all this waiting.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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