Where the Hearse is

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FEBRUARY 18, 2002 | NO.6

Here's the drill: you startoff an Alan Ball script; you die. His Oscar-winning screenplay for the suburban satire American Beauty began with Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) narrating his own story from the grave. At the outset of Six Feet Under, Ball's dark-humored, Golden-Globe-winning TV drama, Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins), paterfamilias to a family of Los Angeles undertakers, is taking the new hearse out for a spin. He leans over to light up a cigarette ... and gets blindsided by a city bus. Remember, kids: Smoking kills.

It is hardly a surprising opener for hbo, the U.S. network and producer of Six Feet Under, which took us into lockup with Oz and inside the Mob with The Sopranos. But it is strange that Ball, 44, is doing TV at all. He wrote for the sitcoms Grace Under Fire and Cybill, soul-sucking experiences that he says provided the bile that fueled Beauty; his 1999 sitcom Oh Grow Up was panned by critics and Ball himself ("I ended up making something that I myself would not watch"). After Beauty, everyone in Hollywood wanted to work with him; he recalls pitches that started, "O.K., Winona Ryder is an heiress and Hugh Grant is a butler ..."

The project that grabbed him was an idea for a show set in the funeral business. The result, closer to Beauty than the comedy hbo pitched, is airing in Australia on the Nine Network from Feb. 18. Sure, the material lends itself to Ball's mordant wit (a funeral-home employee calls a tough restoration job-a poor sap dismembered by an industrial dough mixer-a "Humpty Dumpty"). But more important, an American cemetery is nothing if not the final suburb, a manicured, planned, green expanse of land in easy commuting distance of the living, its skeletons under the surface.

The modern "death-care" business is about concealment-embalming, touch-up, euphemism-themes with personal resonance for Ball. When he was 13, he and his sister were in a car accident; she died. At the funeral, he recalls, "there was the surreal spectacle of this embalmed facsimile of the person you love laid out for people to look at. A hundred years ago when people died, the bodies stayed in the house. Now they're taken somewhere and suddenly there's this sanitized version of them. It becomes a metaphor for denial."

Six Feet Under is not really about death (though each episode begins with the death of a soon-to-be Fisher and Sons client). It's about the lies family members tell one another. Each Fisher is repressing something. Mother Ruth (Frances Conroy) has been having an affair. Son David (Michael C. Hall) is a closeted gay man who swallows his resentment over staying in the business to please Dad. Daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose) hides her drug use. And elder son Nate (Peter Krause from Sports Night) has spent his life running from responsibility, hiding from himself.

All this can lend itself to the kind of tired potshots against Wasp repressiveness that sometimes marred Beauty, with the open-casket funeral standing in for suburbia's houses made of ticky-tack. The show can be glib, and there are too many one-dimensional peripheral characters, like episode four's Latino gangbangers. But the leads are richly drawn and well cast; theater veteran Hall finds layers within layers in tightly wound David. In the pilot's finest scene, Nathaniel's funeral, Nate makes a self-indulgent show of refusing to sprinkle dirt on the grave from a tidy canister, protesting the "sanitized" ritual by hurling on fistfuls of dirt with his bare hands; Ruth follows suit, wailing like an animal. "You want to get your hands dirty?" David confronts his brother. "You sanctimonious prick. Talk to me when you've had to stuff formaldehyde-soaked cotton up your father's ass so he doesn't leak." If our society's ways of death, and life, are based on little white lies, we see here that in some way we've asked for that; if Ruth's eruption is honest and healthy, we also on some level hoped not to see it.

Which means too that the dead are more likely to speak (as they do here-Nathaniel appears in fantasy sequences throughout the season) than Six Feet Under is to become a Sopranos-scale phenomenon. It is often funny but never exactly fun; it's icier, more rarefied and easier to admire than to love. It's also audacious, psychologically acute and beautifully shot (including TV's most gorgeous opening-credits sequence). And there's enough under its verdant green surface for Alan Ball to keep on digging.

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