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'Six Feet Under' buries the competition
© St. Petersburg Times,
The participants were four opinionated TV critics -- including this one -- gathered in a clump to socialize while schmoozing CBS network executives. But our conversation swiftly shifted to a much more interesting topic:
HBO's innovative drama about a family that runs a Los Angeles funeral home, Six Feet Under.
The surprise: Only one critic in the bunch really liked it.
The reaction mirrored something I'd noticed for weeks: that many folks have a tough time enjoying Alan Ball's complex, in-your-face show about a terminally repressed funeral home-owning family.
"Six Feet Under is a show populated entirely by cartoons," read a savage July 22 review by author Wendy Lesser in the New York Times, echoing the thoughts of many writers I spoke with during the Television Critics Association's summer press tour last month.
For this critic, Six Feet Under has unfolded like a quality novel -- kicking off with a bombastic opening episode filled with over-the-top performances and humor, only to settle into a complex character study that rewards repeated viewing.
But it also exposes an uncomfortable truth: Those of us who say we want cutting-edge TV often aren't prepared for what happens when we get it.
After all, The Sopranos -- as well-written and well-performed as it is -- plays out on the familiar, compelling terrain of the American Mob drama. Remove the razor-sharp humor, spot-on social satire and jaw-dropping gender studies of Sex and the City, and you're still left with four beautiful women who have an awful lot of sex in the country's most glamorous town.
But Six Feet Under is a dark comedy about an uptight clan that runs a funeral home. Talk about slick and sexy.
That American Beauty screenwriter Ball has crafted a compelling series from this setting is nothing short of miraculous. And the reticence of some critics to admit this achievement feels more like an urge to expose HBO's first high-profile series flop than any honest critical assessment.
The reason? Because Six Feet Under is hardly a Hollywood flash-and-trash take on sex and death.
It's several stories at once: a family drama about the long-repressed owners of Fisher & Sons Funeral Home, suddenly shocked into connecting with each other after the death of patriarch Nathaniel Fisher (an occasionally reappearing Richard Jenkins).
It's also a meditation on the fragility of life -- how we're all one bus accident or golf ball crack on the noggin away from our final moments. And what it means to be one of the few whose job involves facing that reality every day.
Best of all, it's a story charting the evolution of four wonderfully eccentric characters (and their even more eccentric friends, employees and lovers) from pained, isolated individuals to a family struggling to care about each other.
We've seen teenage sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose) transform from at-risk latchkey kid to devoted girlfriend of a serious drug user, himself transformed after his little brother accidentally shoots and kills himself.
Tightly wound brother David (Michael C. Hall) has struggled to deal with life as a religious, closeted gay man. Some the series' best moments have featured him coming out to his family and friends in fits and starts, while indulging a dark, hidden urge for meaningless sex that is both self-destructive and self-medicating.
Tightly wound mom, Ruth (Frances Conroy), has also let her hair down, literally and figuratively -- enjoying the romantic attentions of two men before choosing the one least likely to receive her continued affections.
Central character Nate (Sports Night's Peter Krause) has evolved most -- miraculously moving from a self-centered guy with a Peter Pan complex to a devoted boyfriend who sticks with his lady love (even after her manic-depressive brother freaks out, Fatal Attraction-style).
This family's dysfunction is jagged as broken glass in early episodes (in one scene, Claire confesses she's breaking down emotionally over her father's death, only to have Nate get angry that she won't give him a moment's peace). But it only lends added resonance to the moments when they connect later on.
Yes, there have been missteps. I still can't decide whether Conroy's performance as Ruth is a wonderful study in repression or just bad acting. And the storyline featuring the mentally ill brother of Nate's genius girlfriend, Brenda, seems a bit too movie-of-the-week for such a smart series.
At 9 tonight, HBO airs Six Feet Under's last two episodes together, wrapping a triumphant debut season. With growing ratings (just behind lead-in Sex and the City) and production on a second batch of episodes scheduled to start in late September, it's a victory lap in a race already won.
But what a finale: David finds himself pushed to confront religious and family issues by the beating death of a young gay man whose funeral is held at Fisher & Sons. Nate's conflict with Brenda's brother comes to a frightening climax; Claire's boyfriend indulges in some bonehead behavior that's bound to backfire in the near future.
And Nate sees the beginning of a personal challenge sure to color much of next season. Those are all the details you'll get here: Saying anything more would ruin the surprise.
Suffice it to say, this is the kind of TV critics always say we want: fearless, contemporary, urbane, complex and centered on powerful themes of life and death.
Even the music -- from American Beauty composer Thomas Newman's haunting clarinet-and-strings theme song to the debut episode's rocking closer, the Devlins' 1997 jam Waiting -- adds extra dramatic dimension. (HBO's Web site lists which songs and artists fill each episode, at www.hbo.com/sixfeetunder/cmp/show_music.html.)
So, with all due respect to Ms. Lesser, forget about all those naysayers who don't get it and enjoy the best drama currently on television. Like a snowflake in a sandstorm, such inspired creativity rarely lasts long.
- To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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