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Tuned In: New shows keep TV's summer hot

Thursday, August 16, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In the past, these would be the dog days of summer for the denizens of TV land. Not anymore.

First cable started dishing out original series in the summer. Lately, broadcast networks have become more willing to roll out new programs, and not just the disasters they're dumping in hopes no one will notice.

This summer, HBO's "Six Feet Under" (9 p.m. Sunday) rose above all other original series. Though it started a bit shaky, after a handful of episodes it became an addictive Sunday staple, drawing more viewers than "The Sopranos" or "Sex and the City" did in their first seasons.

When it premiered, I didn't think "Six Feet Under" was revolutionary TV. It seemed more like a family soap opera in an unusual setting (the Fisher family's funeral home). I still think that's true, but its willingness to deal with death sets it apart.

"Why do people have to die?" asks a grieving niece in Sunday's two-hour season finale.

"To make life important," Nate responds.

It's not the first time most people have heard that answer, but it's a truism that fits perfectly in the "Six Feet Under" universe.

Though the show's treatment of corporations (through a chain of funeral homes) and organized religion (in relation to gay church members) remains predictably politically correct, the show's core characters ring true.

Whether it's polar opposite brothers -- laid-back Nate (Brian Krause) and intense David (Michael C. Hall) -- or their high-strung mother (Frances Conroy) or deeply feeling sister (Lauren Ambrose), "Six Feet Under" focuses on a believably flawed family.

In Sunday's first hour, Fisher & Sons handles the victim of a homophobic attack, prompting David (Michael C. Hall) to reflect on his own lifestyle and take further steps out of the closet. There's also a frightening denouement to the creepy relationship between Nate's girlfriend, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), and her mentally unstable brother, Billy (Jeremy Sisto).

The 13th episode, airing at 10 p.m., was written and directed by series creator Alan Ball and features enough surprises to satiate viewers disappointed by the loose ends of "The Sopranos" season finale. Oh, there are threads left dangling here, but they're new threads.

Other notable summer series include:

'Murder in Small Town X'

It's the best reality show few people are watching. Viewing an episode of Fox's "Murder in Small Town X" (9 p.m. Tuesday) is like playing the board game Clue, reading a mystery novel and watching "Survivor" all at the same time.

Maybe that's why viewers are tuning it out.

Starting with 10 investigators and 15 suspects was probably too much for some viewers to keep straight. But for those willing to invest in this unique hybrid of reality and drama shows, "Murder" is enjoyably loopy, the "Twin Peaks" of the reality genre.

"Survivor"-style in-fighting remains the show's weakest link, although I must admit I now love to hate the show's pariah, Kristin.

No matter. The ratings have dropped consistently, and Fox clearly wants the show gone ASAP. This week the network scheduled the last two episodes to air the same night, Sept. 4.

'Farscape'

Long the best sci-fi show on American television, Sci Fi Channel's original drama series continues to take risks in its third season.

Creating a carbon copy of lead character John Crichton (Ben Browder) was sometimes confusing but allowed the show's writers to indulge fans wanting to see Crichton get together with feisty Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black). It didn't dilute the sexual tension between the pair because the writers killed off Crichton No. 2 after a sufficient amount of time.

Last week's episode, featuring Crichton's Warner Bros. cartoon-inspired coma dreams, was amazing. The animated segments looked authentically Looney Tunes and perfectly aped Roadrunner cartoons and the "Farscape" characters themselves.

The bad news: "Farscape" (9 p.m. Friday) goes into reruns after next week's episode until January.

The good news: If you haven't seen "Farscape" yet, you can catch up when Sci Fi begins airing reruns Aug. 27 (8 p.m. Monday through Thursday) from the first episode up to the current season.

'State of Grace'

A story of two young girls growing up in the South in the '60s, this Fox Family Channel series is one children and parents can happily watch together.

"State of Grace" (9 p.m. Monday; season finale Aug. 27) can be a little bit too precocious, especially in the narration by an adult Hannah (Frances McDormand). But its heart is in the right place.

The season finale shows the parallels between Hannah (Alia Shawkat), who wants to spend more time with her father, and Grace (Mae Whitman), who doesn't want her widowed mother to remarry and give her a new father.

Sometimes poignant, sometimes silly, "State of Grace" deserves its already announced second season. I hope Disney's proposed purchase of Fox Family (renaming it ABC Family) won't dim the show's future prospects.

'Family Guy'

The Fox sitcom "Family Guy" (9:30 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday this fall) is certainly up to the task of offending viewers of every stripe, but its pinpoint precise skewering of local TV news deserves a standing ovation.

In an episode that aired this summer, a TV news reporter said something many viewers probably wonder about when they hear breathless news reports on TV.

"Is [the city] in the grips of a serial arsonist?" the reporter asked rhetorically. "Police say no, my producer says yes."

"Family Guy" is frequently crude and always rude, but it remains a spot-on satire.

'Big Brother 2'

OK, so this one breaks the mold. It's not a quality show by any means, but the second edition remains more interesting than the first. Not "good" interesting, more like "car wreck" interesting.

How twisted is it? Try understanding this head-spinning recap from Tuesday's show: "Will told Hardy of Krista's plan to evict him. Hardy tried to convince Nicole to nominate Krista, but Nicole herself felt betrayed by the long-standing alliance of Hardy-Krista-Monica, who call themselves 'The Untouchables.' Nicole responded by strengthening her secret alliance with Will. Though visiting house guest Ophelia the pig lightened some tension, paranoia continued to rise and tempers flared."

Watching "Big Brother 2" is like observing children on a playground -- at a reform school. On "Survivor" there are good guys and bad guys, but on "Big Brother 2," everyone is despicable.

Episodes on the next two Saturdays and Sept. 8 will be pre-empted by CBS for pre-season football. KDKA will delay tonight's "live" eviction episode for the Steelers game, airing "Big Brother 2" after midnight at 3:05 a.m. in the wee hours of Friday morning.

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

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