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Cable: the good life

For an Oscar-winning screenwriter who deplores the formulaic, commercial constraints of the networks, HBO is a heavenly home for a quirky new show.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 3, 2001


For a guy who seems obsessed with death, Alan Ball sounds pretty happy.

And why wouldn't he be? Premium cable giant HBO, TV's premier outlet for drama and comedy, is airing 13 episodes of the 44-year-old writer's latest project, the wry family drama Six Feet Under.

With an Oscar under his belt for his American Beauty screenplay, Ball is poised for a creative triumph that should erase the bitter taste of past TV failures, from his quickly canceled 1999 ABC comedy Oh Grow Up to time spent writing one-liners for mediocre sitcoms Cybill and Grace Under Fire.

In his new guise as born-again TV auteur, Ball -- who cut his scriptwriting teeth as he ran the General Nonsense Theater Company in Sarasota during the early '80s -- has popped up in magazines such as Newsweek and the New Yorker, promoting Six Feet Under while exposing the compromises and pandering that undermine so many network TV shows.

And while facing TV reporters to tout his new series, the guy who wrote an Academy Award-winning movie narrated by a dead man has one hope: that nobody thinks he's too downbeat.

"My big fear is that people will think I'm morose and depressed, because I'm not," said Ball, minutes after relating how he once struggled with panic attacks because he hadn't fully dealt with the death of his older sister.

"But if people watch the series, they'll realize it's not a show about death," Ball said. "It's a show about life in the presence of death."

Indeed, Six Feet Under emerges as a quirky, often bitter TV pill to swallow. Centered on a family trying to keep going after its patriarch suddenly dies, the series explores a surreal landscape: the modern American funeral home.

That's because the Fisher family also owns and operates Fisher & Sons Funeral Home in Los Angeles. And when Nathaniel Fisher (a playful Richard Jenkins) is killed in an auto accident, rebel son Nate (Sports Night's Peter Krause), dutiful son David (Michael C. Hall), wayward 16-year-old daughter Claire (Can't Hardly Wait's Lauren Ambrose) and detail-oriented mom Ruth (Frances Conroy) must learn to deal with each other.

Those familiar with the sardonic American Beauty will recognize the in-your-face irreverence of Six Feet Under, which breaks up the drama with fake commercials for funeral products such as luxury hearses, wound filler and plastic earth dispensers (imagine toothy dancers twirling oversize salt shakers in a demented parody of those Gap khaki ads).

"Culturally, we're so conditioned to fear death and mystify it, and sort of shove it under a carpet as something we're not supposed to look at," said Ball, who developed the series after talking to an HBO executive and while reading Jessica Mitford's hard-hitting expose of the funeral home industry, The American Way of Death Revisited.

"The thing that attracted me (was the question): "What does being surrounded by death, being the person who the rest of the world pays to confront death . . . do to your outlook about life?' " Ball said. "The idea of living with death on a daily basis . . . the idea of it being tangible as opposed to a hypothetical notion . . . that will immediately throw life into stark relief."

Ball, who was head writer and directed tonight's pilot episode, creates a turbulent family that becomes a mass of open psychological wounds after Nathaniel Fisher's death.

Ruth, a control freak and uber housewife, must face the plastic insincerity that filled her life and the secret infidelity she used to cope with it. David, a closeted gay man who feels unappreciated for choosing to help run the family business, juggles a cop boyfriend and a truckload of resentment.

Nate, a rudderless rebel stuck in low-level jobs, tries to push past the pain to something real: In one scene, he throws aside the earth shaker to grab handfuls of dirt and fling them into his father's grave.

He's aided by a smart, beautiful one-night stand, Brenda Chenoweth (Hilary and Jackie's Rachel Griffiths), who slowly becomes something more.

Through it all, you sense the turmoil of a family so closed off and self-centered, they can barely see each other as they embalm, reconstruct and hold a funeral for one of their own.

"When my sister died, my family just blew apart," said Ball, who was riding to a piano lesson with sister Mary Ann when a car collided with their Pinto; the writer, then 13, was barely scratched.

"My mom spent some time in a hospital, my dad starting drinking and talking to himself, and I was the only kid left at home," he said. "At home, it was like ghosts bumping into each other as we passed in the night. . . . That's bound to inform my work."

One thing Six Feet Under studiously avoids is network TV convention: Characters here rarely voice their inner turmoil or resolve their conflicts with each other. In a heated outburst, Claire tells her mom, point-blank: "The touchy-feely mother-daughter relationships you see on TV do not exist."

"I don't think I was ever taught to be honest, how to be intimate or reveal my feelings," said Ball, who compares the tension and struggle to keep up appearances in many American families with the sanitized, modern-day funeral process.

"When I see these really well-adjusted, psychologically articulate families on TV, I just don't know how to relate to that . . . (as if) commercial TV was saying your family should be like this," he said. "If I had to crystallize a recurrent theme in my work, it's about how hard it is to be an authentic person in an inauthentic world."

It's a struggle Ball faced himself, upon moving to Los Angeles after years as a playwright in Florida and New York. Feeding the oversize egos of stars Brett Butler and Cybill Shepherd on Grace Under Fire and Cybill, he became part of a process he denounces now, producing network TV comedies "that pretended to have some meaning, but . . . were basically filler between commercials."

The process is what kills network TV, Ball argued, where the will of the viewer is subservient to the will of the advertiser.

Networks executives focused on marketing often push to make characters nicer and remove ambiguity, ensuring that viewers sit through the "corporate propaganda" in the commercial breaks, he said.

"When you make decisions by committee . . . you end up with everybody's third choice. So I just became a factory worker. . . . I punched my clock and did my job and didn't have anything invested in it, because it was too painful," said Ball, who instead channeled his rage and creative frustration into the American Beauty script.

"One of the things I've heard network executives say is, "Let's assume I'm the stupidest person in America. Am I going to get this?' " he said. "And frankly, I'm thinking, "If you're the stupidest person in America, I don't care if you get it.' But you can't say that."

Now Ball has landed at HBO, a business based on creating the kind of television that transcends the small screen (or at least prompts viewers to pay premium fees).

Suddenly, this outspoken foe of formulaic, network TV mediocrity is faced with an awesome task: producing HBO's next groundbreaking series, shooting for the same critical and commercial acclaim as The Sopranos.

He's taken some chances along the way. The black humor that fuels Six Feet Under is sometimes subtle; it's one of the few shows that rewards repeated viewing. (One warning: the scenes of sewing up dead bodies and draining corpses for embalming may test some viewers' mettle.)

The main characters are conflicted, often self-involved and rarely noble. One moment, 16-year-old Claire is stealing a foot to stick in the locker of an ex-flame; the next moment, David is telling the family that the tall, handsome cop at his side is his "racquetball partner."

Ball isn't above indulging a few TV cliches himself, most pointedly in the dead-return-to-counsel-the-living shtick that has surfaced in NBC's Providence and The West Wing, along with ABC's Once and Again and Fox's Ally McBeal.

At least Nathaniel's returns come loaded with subtext, as each child sees his or her own hopes and fears reflected in the father. He wears Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt in Claire's mind but hovers over David in a dark suit to berate his son's substandard "restorative" skills.

As the series progresses, the dead make regular appearances. Each episode kicks off with an unusual death that brings family members to Fisher & Sons (the most unusual: a porn star who dies when her cat pushes a set of electric rollers into her bath).

Whether viewers will respond to such an oddball, unorthodox vision of life and death remains the series' biggest open question.

"I never set out to be the death guy . . . (but) it's classic midlife stuff," Ball said, laughing. "Some guys get hair transplants and buy fancy cars and marry 20-year-old models. I tend to write about death."

* * *

AT A GLANCE: Six Feet Under debuts at 10 tonight on HBO. Grade: A. Rating: TV-MA (mature audiences).

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