PASADENA, CALIF. - Any show that receives as much critical slobbering as HBO's "The Sopranos" is bound to experience some kind of backlash. But so far the only ribbing has been directed at critics in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch that spoofed the effusive reviews.
"The Sopranos" cast expected worse. James Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano, worried his show's meteoric rise could end just as quickly as "Twin Peaks."
"Everyone went nuts for a certain year or something like that and then it was like, whooh," Gandolfini said, pantomiming a nosedive. "But we have the boss and he's not going to let us down."
During a press conference to tout the show's already highly-touted second season, Gandolfini and the rest of the cast continuously praised series creator/writer David Chase.
"He calls in for little things. It's all those little details," said actress Lorraine Bracco, who plays Tony's former shrink, Dr. Melfi.
Gandolfini said the show's quality continues to remain high because "no one wants to disappoint [Chase], and that's a testament to him."
Chase, who previously wrote for "Northern Exposure," said the biggest pressure when writing the second season (unspooling Sundays at 9 p.m. for the next 12 weeks) was not only maintaining the quality of the first year but dealing with the ramifications of the first-season finale.
"There were some plot developments that, by their nature, kind of changed the show," Chase said. "We look at it like this: You can always count on a Tony-Livia scene. ... We didn't have those scenes anymore because his mother tried to kill him. Also, his shrink is not going to just embrace him. That's finished. So, we had some work to do, and it was hard work."
Tony's backstabbing mother, Livia, is played by actress Nancy Marchand, who has lung cancer. Chase said he hasn't taken her health into consideration while plotting the show's future.
"Like any of us, she has her good days and her bad days," Chase said. "Her bad days can be worse than ours, but by and large, she just does it. To think ahead would just be too strange."
Chase said the biggest difference between a series on a broadcast network and HBO isn't that HBO is commercial-free. Rather, it's the opportunity to create a show that doesn't appeal to the lowest common denominator.
"It has to do with the ability to tell stories in a different way in that no one is freaking out if it's not clear from the first moment what the end of the story is going to be," he said. "Nobody calls us and says, 'Geez, what's going to keep them there? Why don't you blow up the oil truck?' We never hear that kind of stuff. That's the difference."
Chase said he received complimentary letters from rival network executives after the show's first season, but he doesn't think "The Sopranos" will herald long-standing changes by network broadcasters.
"I think that they might even be persuaded to try to do something like this," Chase said. "But in the end, after the pilot phase, I think it would be a real horror for both sides. ... It would not be a good marriage."
But it does work for HBO. Last Sunday's season premiere garnered a 16.2 rating among homes with HBO. The network usually draws a 5.8 rating in prime time. The season premiere out-rated the show's previous best rating by 29 percent. In homes with HBO, "The Sopranos" beat ABC's "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire," which had a 13.4 rating.
With the exception of some Italian-American groups, "The Sopranos" has gotten universal acclaim, especially in psychiatry circles. Chase received a letter after the first-season finale from a Pennsylvania psychiatrist who said the number of men coming in for therapy has increased.
"We hear that all the time," Chase said. "And they say, 'Well, you know Tony Soprano does it,' and they say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' "
For the actors, being on the show made them more recognizable on the street - but not always as the right person.
"I get a lot of, 'Miss Bracco! Miss Bracco!'" said Edie Falco, who plays Tony's wife. "I don't know if I should stop and say, 'I'm actually Miss Falco' or do you wave to them anyway?"
For the guys, they sometimes get tips from real-life mobsters. One suggested he'd teach actor Michael Imperioli how to really kill someone.
"He was, like, 60 and his girlfriend was really young," Imperioli recalled. "And she was lingering too long at our table and we got really, really nervous."
Gandolfini has had similar encounters.
"Occasionally you'll meet people who will say things," he said, "but I like to think that the smarter mobsters are the ones who don't come up to TV actors."