Raising the Dead

Six Feet Under resurrects the dysfunctional-family melodrama

In the first five minutes of HBO's new series Six Feet Under, Pasadena funeral-home patriarch Nathan Fisher (Richard Jenkins) is piloting his newest hearse through an intersection when he scrambles for another of the cigarettes he has vowed to quit and gets broadsided by a bus. Undaunted, Nathan's ghost pops up to challenge one child's lack of direction, bring another out of the closet, and spectate at his own funeral, complete with floppy hat, Hawaiian shirt, and highball. Future opening sequences will kill off an infomercial huckster, a Latino gangbanger, a porn star, and a maintenance man chopped up by the equipment he was cleaning. ("My Tommy was cut into 50 pieces by a big, giant dough mixer!" wails his wife.) They, too, will come back, sometimes garlanded with stitches, to offer advice and role modeling for the Fisher clan.

Which they could certainly use. At first glance, this show seems to be setting out the array of dysfunctional-family playing pieces familiar from Ordinary People on down: Handsome 'n' scruffy screwup older brother Nate (Peter Krause, formerly of Sports Night, who spends the first few episodes schlepping around a field of stubble) dropped out of college and wandered before slumping into one of those lifetime temporary jobs in management at an organic-food co-op. Functional, if prissy, neatnik younger brother Dave (Michael Hall, whose near-plastic hair seems molded to his head as stiffly as his hands clasp before his waist) gave up law school to enter the family trade, all of which endowed him with a useful load of resentments. (Dad leaves each son half the business, ensuring even more tension.) Oh, and Dave is quietly gay, having embalmed his private life in dark suits and good manners for two decades. Little sis Claire (Lauren Ambrose, best known as the smart girl in Can't Hardly Wait, who deploys her face's anything-goes possibility to good effect) is an angry loner who loses her virginity in the lime-green hearse she drives to school. Brittle, worn-out mom Ruth (Frances Conroy) holds the brood together while doing her best to counterfeit some replica of happiness and to atone for her own missteps, including an affair of which her husband died unaware.

This show won't match the pop blastoff of The Sopranos, which is presumably what HBO is hoping for. How could it? The isolation of real organized crime allows us the luxury of fantasy, but funeral-home disease is inescapable. When Ruth shriekingly advises a smooching couple, "Just enjoy it while it lasts, which isn't very long," do you laugh or shudder? But stick with Six Feet Under past your discomfort, and past the pokey opening episode: The longer you watch, the more executive producer Alan Ball's literary subtlety works its way under your skin. Rather than preaching or reaching for easy black comedy (although the third episode, concerning a missing foot, adeptly pushes those buttons), Ball wants to study the ripples of death as it passes through both one particular family, and all families; he cares about how and when grief plays itself out, with room for anger, humor, and forgetting. Peering over Nate's shoulder at the cemetery, Dad complains that his gravestone's legend is needlessly bland. "What would you prefer," Nate ripostes. "'Introvert, Sadist, Mindfucker'?"

This is one of the most written shows I've seen in a while; each character's arc is developed with care for its final shape rather than its aim for the funny bone. Love and death are the major preoccupations. Ball escorts Dave from the closet with compassion and humor (after six episodes, he still hasn't told Mom); his boyfriend Keith (soap actor Mathew St. Patrick), an African-American cop who won't stand for silence, is the show's single most appealing character. Though Dave and Nate's tangled business and romantic lives get the majority of screen time, the women are more interesting, because they're less customary. (How many times have we already watched young men grow into responsibility?) The Fisher women's complex inner lives measure up to that of the tormented Carmela Soprano: Emotionally wasteful, slogging through daily despair, Claire is a teenager on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She bounces realistically (and unpredictably) from condescension to need with her mother, from bonding to resentment with her brothers. The show also respects Ruth's prickly propriety and lonely dignity; she struggles to find some way to mourn that doesn't give in to let-it-go clichés, including blowing 25 grand at the track and dragging Claire off to visit her horrifically happy cousin, whose remedy for sorrow involves mother-daughter spinning classes.

For a program so enraptured with the dead, Six Feet Under is rarely willfully perverse, nor is it dark out of some misprized notion of "vision." Mordant but not morbid (dream sequences appear in each episode), it is truly, sincerely interested in what we talk about when we talk about death. Does it bring us together through shared awareness of mortality, or do we simply extend petty discriminations into the grave? Does its proximity summon eloquence, or do we stumble and mutter and hope its shadow will pass? We see every possibility: The gangbanger's parents don't want his mobbed-up brother to pay for a fancy sendoff, then relent; one of the porn star's younger colleagues recalls warmly that the deceased guided the neophyte through her first lesbian scene with the aid of a handful of Xanax.

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