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What's happened to Carmela Soprano?

The hit Mafia show has added so many new characters, says Bruce Fretts, that old favorites are disappearing fast

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What’s happened to Carmela Soprano?

Don’t get me wrong: I love ”The Sopranos.” Like almost every other TV critic in America, I placed it at the very tip on my top 10 list last year, and it’s gotten better every week this season. But I do have one minor beef: There are too many freakin’ characters!

In the past, I’ve complained about cast overcrowding on such sitcoms as ”Spin City” and dramas as ”ER.” But now the syndrome’s afflicting the best show on television. And when there are so many new figures on the series that old favorites get edged aside for entire episodes at a time, drastic action must be taken.

For example, the Feb. 27 installment ended up with a heartbreaking scene of Mob henchman Pussy (Vincent Pastore), who’s betrayed don Tony Soprano (national treasure James Gandolfini) to the feds, weeping in the bathroom during godson Tony Jr.’s confirmation. The moment brought new poignancy to this continuing plotline. But then the next week: No Pussy!

Fellow made men Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) and Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) have also seemed to receive less screen time at the expense of new tough guys like Richie Aprile (the deeply intimidating David Proval) and that longhaired Italian dude (the fact that I don’t know his name should be a clue that this character is severely underdeveloped). And since he’s been under house arrest, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) — one of the show’s strongest presences last season — has remained largely peripheral.

The female cast members have suffered the most from neglect. I can understand why the great Nancy Marchand (Livia Soprano) can’t appear in every episode; the actress is reportedly battling cancer. But Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Jennifer Melfi, whose therapy sessions with Tony defined the series last season, has barely registered this year. Edie Falco — who won a well-deserved 1999 Emmy as Tony’s wife, Carmela — had little to do until the Mar. 5 episode, when she brilliantly bullied a neighbor’s sister to pen a college recommendation for daughter Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler). Even Tony’s sister, Janice (Aida Turturro), whose arrival dominated this year’s first few episodes, has been reduced to a walk-on role in recent weeks.

There’s a built-in solution to this situation, of course: Start killing characters. (This is ”The Sopranos,” after all.) The writers took a step in the right direction by having Tony’s nephew, Christopher Moltisanti (the indispensable Michael Imperioli), gun down one of the wannabe gangsters who tried to rub him out. Now they need to whack a few more wise guys. With some cast members allegedly planning to hold out for bigger salaries next season, HBO might not object to such a bloodbath.