by Marty Demarest

Nobody likes to talk about death. So when Oscar-hot American Beauty writer Alan Ball announced that he was developing a television series for HBO that was set in a funeral parlor, it was greeted with relative silence. However, after the show's first season, and a record number of Emmy nominations, people couldn't stop talking about the Fisher family and their occupation.

In Six Feet Under, Ball continues to mine the same territory he covered in American Beauty -- the buried secrets of suburban America (drug use, career failures, homosexuality) -- and in the process show that unless people overreact, these secrets aren't all that gory. What Ball and his writers seem to suggest is that we forgo the histrionics and get right down to some good hard cleaning.

This part of the premise works well, particularly when the family's uptight nature is used for comedic effect. Death comes knocking on their door in forms of increasing disarray. We all know that death is a taboo that occasionally begs breaking, but does it need to be turned into slapstick at the beginning of every episode? Still, squeamish viewers should stay away.

Episodes regularly veer between television clich & eacute;s and watered-down quirkiness. Two people have a heart-to-heart while searching for a missing human foot. An episode in which a character experiments with the drug Ecstasy is treated like an adult episode of the Cosby Show, with the pills being accidentally hidden in the family's aspirin bottle. Some people will find this tweaking of television conventions original; others will just find it clunky. And aside from the magnificent Lauren Ambrose, who plays a teenage girl, none of the performers wears comedy naturally. The moments of heightened drama seem almost campy, while the intended jokes groan under the weight of their messages.

However, many of the philosophical moments are probing. The accidental shooting of a six year-old at the beginning of one episode is particularly disturbing and leads to some meaningful scenes. And the dead father who interacts with the characters at various points is compellingly enigmatic. In the end, Six Feet Under is clever and watchable, even as you observe the flaws being cleaned up. Perhaps the only serious problem is the price: $100 for 13 hour-long episodes. Wouldn't it just be cheaper to subscribe to HBO for a month? Don't kill yourself -- rent it.

Publication date: 03/06/03

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