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Mob hit The Sopranos sleeps with the fishes after its next season. Ditto with the Emmy-winning comedy Sex and the City, which will film 20 episodes this year, airing 12 shows in June and eight in January.
And groundbreaking prison drama Oz signed off last Sunday with an edgy 100-minute finale that felt less like a conclusion than a passing of the torch, as if its story lines would somehow continue out there in the ether.
So tonight's debut of Six Feet Under is more than just the return of TV's quirkiest family drama. It's also the unveiling of HBO's Great Future Hope for continued Emmy success and hipster cachet.
But fans looking for a blockbuster return to form for the series that brought us TV's first family of funeral directors should prepare for a glaring question.
Where the heck is Brenda?
That's because Six Feet producers have taken the gutsy step of delaying for several episodes the appearance of Rachel Griffiths' sexy, challenging, frighteningly intelligent yet hopelessly confused Brenda Chenowith. (The role brought Griffiths one of the series' first Golden Globe awards.)
Without Brenda, the show's sexual content takes a dive, making room for a more measured, leisurely (yes, some might say boring) examination of the ties that bind this marvelously mismatched family.
HBO's best series work on multiple levels: Complex characters in The Sopranos are made cool by a bloody, sexy Mob story; Sex and the City's urban relationships are set against the spectacle of four beautiful women having lots of sex in the nation's coolest metropolis.
Six Feet Under once followed that formula, too, dressing up its tales of family dysfunction with plenty of sex. Often the sparks came from Brenda, who built a sex-filled, emotionally precarious relationship with Peter Krause's Nate Fisher.
Last season Brenda's descent into sex addiction electrified the show, as viewers watched her trying to hide her anonymous, debilitating encounters with strangers. It was a sly pressure cooker that led to the series' most volcanic sequence: the moment Nate learned that she betrayed him just before his life-threatening brain surgery.
But forget all that drama. Because the Six Feet Under you'll see unfold tonight is a decidedly different animal.
The family now works out of the Fisher and Diaz funeral home, taking on onetime employee Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez) as a full partner and qualified funeral director. Nate is busy with the return of old flame Lisa (Lili Taylor), who has given birth to his baby. (Other way-cool cameo appearances: SCTV alum Catherine O'Hara as Lisa's psycho boss and Oscar winner Kathy Bates as a pal of matriarch Ruth Fisher.)
Gay brother David (Michael C. Hall) is in couples therapy with his borderline abusive boyfriend Keith (Matthew St. Patrick), a former cop forced to become a security guard after the trauma of killing someone in the line of duty destroys his confidence. Sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose) is struggling to find her place in art school, dating a man who is her perfect mate but for a single flaw (no, spoiler hounds, I won't reveal it here).
And the sequence tonight on the outcome of Nate's brain surgery is a masterpiece of sly storytelling, leaving viewers unsure of what is real for a deliciously long time.
The upshot: People who found Six Feet Under episodes slow before may find the deliberate pace maddening this season, an observation based on the first five episodes sent to critics for review. Gone is much of the overt humor and sexuality that powered previous episodes, forcing viewers to glean volumes from Nate's forced sunniness and David's repressed desperation.
Indeed, if there's a single theme to the first episodes, it's that famous Thoreau quote "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
Nate struggles to be a father and more. Federico fights for his place in what was once a family business. David tries not to be an emotional doormat for the man he loves.
The crucial question: Will this despair translate into the kind of entertainment that will keep viewers tuned in to HBO when its most popular series are no more?
If the answer is no, don't expect HBO's desperation to be similarly quiet.
Queer as Folk
Forget about the gay men on NBC's Will & Grace who don't kiss anyone, date very much or have sex. (I've always said that show's mainstream success comes from showcasing gay culture without showing details that might upset viewers.)
Cable TV is the place to go for challenging, upfront portrayals of gay life.
For proof beyond Six Feet Under's struggling Keith and David, there is Showtime'sQueer as Folk, which returns for its third season at 10 tonight.
The series, which centers on a group of gay men (and a lesbian couple) in Pittsburgh, takes on an issue at the show's heart: How do you choose between the excitement of endless conquests and the satisfaction of a stable relationship?
As everyone else in their circle seems to be pairing up, young art student Justin Taylor (Randy Harrison) leaves promiscuous advertising exec Brian Kinney (Gale Harold) for someone more willing to show love, plunging Brian into a jag of meaningless encounters.
Comic Hal Sparks plays Michael Novotny, a slightly nerdy, sensitive guy who runs a comic book store and dates college professor Ben Bruckner (Tampa native Robert Gant) but carries a torch for Brian. Based on a British series, Queer as Folk drew attention for its explicit depiction of gay sex but gained a following for its complex portrayals of gay friendships and romance.
Tonight, Brian tries to pull Michael into his partying, and two friends decide to date. Like FX's The Shield (which features a religious gay cop fighting his sexual orientation by rushing into marriage) and Six Feet Under, Queer as Folk offers gay characters who aren't afraid to hold hands, kiss and tackle relationship issues substantive as any among heterosexual partners.
Here's hoping the networks, once again, learn from cable's example.
Unlike most brainless reality shows, A&E's gender-bending Role Reversal, airing at 9 tonight, pursues an intriguing premise: What happens if you take four average New Yorkers, two male and two female, and stick them in a house where they will swap gender identities to see how the other half lives?
In the hands of more venal broadcasters (like, say, the people who gave us Joe Millionaire or Are You Hot?), you might get some bizarro cross between Extreme Makeover and Queer as Folk.
But A&E tackled the subject like it was a serious psychological test, corralling female personal trainer Ary Nunez, aspiring actor Ryan Tavlin, standup comic/activist Starla Muraszka and playwright Tye Macke to implement a change that struck at the heart of gender politics.
Participants received an intensive makeover, starting with new haircuts, prosthetics and (for the guys) special padded underwear. Then the quartet took a rigorous "gender training course" that employed a linguist, a choreographer, a voice coach and stylists to reshape their appearances and attitudes.
Each participant seemed to have a different breaking point, from the woman who burst into tears when her hair was cut to guys facing the pain of a full body wax.
The women seemed to have an easier time. Their physical transformations required less work, and they swiftly learned to mimic the attitudes of male behavior. The men faced the physical discomfort of hiding their sex, while also coping with feminine cosmetic rituals and the disdain of others who discovered their role playing.
"What really makes you male or female? And to what extent does your sexual identity make you who you are?" asks A&E's faceless narrator over footage of the participants asking passers-by on the street whether their walk looks realistic. "When deconstructing gender, the newest stranger is yourself."
Not surprisingly, the women often found their changes freeing (Muraszka's male persona bore a surprising resemblance to Malcolm in the Middle co-star Bryan Cranston, for instance). The men had it rougher, particularly when a drunken man nearly assaulted Macke at a baseball game after discovering he wasn't female.
"I came into this as a guy who wasn't very proud of who he was as a man," Macke said. "That's hard to admit. And I think I'm leaving as someone who believes it is very possible to feel confident and powerful in who he is as a man."
-- To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .
PREVIEW: Six Feet Under debuts its third season at 9 tonight on HBO; Role Reversal airs at 9 tonight on A&E; Queer As Folk debuts its third season at 10 tonight on Showtime.
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From the wire