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'Six Feet Under' returns for second season

Sunday, March 03, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The oddball Fisher family returns tonight at 9 for a second season of HBO's mortuary-set drama "Six Feet Under," and life hasn't gotten any easier for them.

David (Michael C. Hall) gets a disease, Nate (Peter Krause) has a ticking bomb in his head, Claire (Lauren Ambrose) continues to hang with creepy Gabe (Eric Balfour), and Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) is depressed.

TV Review
"Six Feet Under"
When: 9 tonight on HBO.
Starring:Peter Krause, Rachel Griffiths, Frances Conroy

"If my life was a movie, I'd fall asleep or walk out," she mutters.

The comic cherry on top is Fisher matriarch Ruth (Frances Conroy), who reads a book on relating to a gay child and becomes overly encouraging. She plans for a family supper with new beau Nikolai (Munhall native Ed O'Ross) and tells her children they can invite significant others, too.

"He and I are having a sexual relationship now," she says bluntly. "I don't know how long it's going to last. ... Sex is an important part of life, it's nothing to be ashamed of. David, if you have a special friend you want to invite ..."

"Why is my friend 'special'?" asks David, who is gay.

You can cut the dysfunction with a knife, which is what makes "Six Feet Under" such fun. I wasn't wild about the show when it began last summer, but after watching six episodes, I was hooked. It's not revolutionary television, but it's entertaining, often creative and frequently defies viewers' expectations.

Nate, who keeps his medical condition secret in tonight's premiere, even dreams that he's playing Chinese Checkers with Life (Cleo King) and Death (Stanley Kamel) as his dead father (Richard Jenkins) looks on.

There seems to be an inordinate amount of profanity in this first episode, especially the F-word, which gets dangerously close to becoming a full-fledged cast member.

Each week's "death" story - about the person who dies and is brought to Fisher & Sons - can run the gamut from poignant to hilarious. The premiere is mostly funny as a B-movie actress overdoses and her cheapskate co-stars try to plan her funeral.

Her "sort of" boyfriend (Shawn Hatosy) likes the idea of cremation: "Then we can scatter her ashes somewhere she'd really like, like Griffith Park or at the Lava Lounge on LaBrea!"

Brenda's creepy brother (Jeremy Sisto) remains institutionalized, at least in the first four episodes made available for review, but her whacked out mother (Joanna Cassidy) makes a very funny appearance in an upcoming episode. Nutty as Brenda's mom is, she does get to the root of Brenda's trouble, particularly the growing gulf between her and Nate.

Ruth, too, has issues. It's only six months since the death of her husband, and she's grasping for ways to cope and rebuild her life. She gets hooked on "The Plan," a "self-actualization" seminar that has her spouting gibberish.

"I'm sorry, I was imposing my old blueprint on you," Ruth says. "Only you can be the architect of your life."

Conroy's loopy portrayal of Ruth is one of the show's comic high points, while Hall's David continues to ground the show emotionally.

But after so thoroughly exploring themes of death and reactions to it last season, these early episodes have me wondering what this year's focus will be. Now that the shock of watching the embalming process has dried up, does "Six Feet Under" threaten to become just a really good soap opera?

Maybe. Or maybe not. So far, this season seems to be focusing more on life, or, more specifically, living with death, which continues to permeate the show. Nate stares down death most directly, but it's also there in David's mourning over the end of his relationship with Keith (Mathew St. Patrick).

Whether or not that's the ultimate theme of the season or if the show is just a smart soap, "Six Feet Under" continues to dig up new ways to tell familiar familial stories.

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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