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'Six Feet Under' dabbles in the daring, but it's still predictable

Friday, June 01, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HBO wants "Six Feet Under" to be the second coming of "The Sopranos." It's not that original.

With "The Sopranos," every expectation is defied. You think there will be a shocking cliffhanger? You don't get it. You expect Dr. Melfi to tell Tony she was raped so he'll go after the creep who did it? She keeps her trap shut.

 
 
TV REVIEW

'SIX FEET UNDER'

WHEN: 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

   
 

The genius of "The Sopranos" is that its storytelling is more like real life and not at all like what happens in TV dramas.

"Six Feet Under" is a more conventional TV drama, though no less addictive. It's a sophisticated, sometimes funny and mostly original series, but that doesn't make it groundbreaking television.

From the writer of "American Beauty," "Six Feet Under" chronicles the unraveling of another suburban American family that on the surface seems "normal." Aside from the fact they run a funeral home, that is.

Normalcy comes to a screeching halt when tragedy strikes.

"My father's dead, my mom's a whore, my brother wants me dead and my sister's smoking crack," says one character, summarizing the quick descent into dysfunction that characterizes guest stars and series regulars alike in "Six Feet Under."

Patriarch Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins) chain-smokes much to his wife's dismay. Ruth (Frances Conroy) can even hear him smoking through the phone.

Their oldest son, Nate (Peter Krause), works in a Seattle food co-op, while son David (Michael C. Hall) has grudgingly joined the family business in Los Angeles. Daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose) hangs with the wrong crowd in high school.

The show begins with Nate returning to Los Angeles for Christmas. He has sex with a mysterious woman (Rachel Griffiths) in an airport janitor's closet shortly after meeting her on their flight into Los Angeles. Eventually he finds out her name is Brenda, but she remains an enigmatic presence.

David is secretly gay and involved romantically with a cop (Michael St. Patrick), but his relationship comes second to taking care of business. And he's all business. Nate shows a human touch when dealing with the grief-stricken families, but uptight David shows little emotion.

"I'll be the strong one, the stable one, the dependable one, because that's what I do," David says. "Everyone else around me will fall apart, because that's what they do."

Sunday's pilot includes weird, surreal faux commercials for products associated with the business of death ("Living Splendor embalming fluid: Only real life is better"). They're kind of darkly clever, but take you out of the program. They disappear next week.

But the jabs at the funeral business, er, "the death care industry," continue. It's funny to hear all the euphemisms (embalming becomes "preparation for visitation;" a hearse is "a funeral carriage"), but they come as part of a cliched story about a chain trying to buy out the Fisher family business. Naturally, everything corporate is evil.

That's the difference between "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under." The former surprises at every turn, the latter is just as likely to take the convenient, politically correct way out.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com emailaddress. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Thursday, May 31, 2001

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