Six Feet Under, which concerns the Fishers, a family of Southern California undertakers, is HBO‘s first new dramatic series since The Sopranos, and as such it is automatic big news and under concomitant pressure to impress, if not necessarily (in the good old Nielsen way) to perform — to fill The Sopranos’ big boots, to justify the new world of TV possibility that show posits. The sense of occasion with which Six Feet Under arrives, certified by a long feature story in The New Yorker detailing its genesis, is heightened further by the fact that the show was created and is overseen and written in part by Alan Ball, who won an Oscar for writing American Beauty. (Ball directed the pilot as well.) To compare it to The Sopranos, that miracle of writerly-actorly-producerly synergy, is of course unfair and also inevitable: Both are sometimes-comic family dramas in which the family is engaged in an unusual, dark business; both are creator-driven programs on a network that fields few new series and operates on an economy not of advertising but of prestige; both make use of premium cable‘s free hand with nudity and bad words. (I would like to think there is a sly critique of this trend in the way that mother Fisher, played by Frances Conroy, greets every expletive with a sharp ”Language!“ But I suspect not.) And each series was created by a disgruntled veteran of factory TV, and attempts in its own edge-pushing way to be significantly what the rest of television is not.
Six previewed hours into Six Feet Under, I remain unmoved. The series fails not for want of ambition, or of sincerity — Ball clearly believes in his characters even if I can’t, and he wants to say something serious about death and loneliness — but the road to bad art is paved with good intentions. Like American Beauty, which seemed to me a lot of recycled hooey and loaded dice, Ball‘s TV show is full of Deep Thoughts that trumpet their depth, of speechifying characters who trade meaningful tales and habitually state and overstate their case. It does offer TV’s first erect dead-guy penis, which is, I guess, some sort of pushed edge. You also get teenage toe sucking, a few controlled substances, gay sex, ghosts and talking corpses, but except perhaps for the teenage toe sucking this is natural enough and nothing you haven‘t seen before.
”Not quite as Addams Family as I expected,“ says Brenda, the new girlfriend of prodigal son Nate (Peter Krause, of Sports Night and Cybill, of which show Ball is also a vet), on her first visit to the Fisher & Sons Funeral Home. The irony of her statement is that for all their quirks the Addamses were a model of sane, loving functionality, while the Fishers — apart from the fairly normal Nate, grappling with his fear of the dead and striking various East of Eden poses with brother David (Michael C. Hall) — are all in some extravagant way pissed off, acting out or repressed. Teenage daughter Claire (the excellent Lauren Ambrose, from Can’t Hardly Wait) spends the first episode tweaked on speed; David is closet-gay and weird about it, talks to dead people, and wears the frantic, pained look of a man about to go postal; mother Ruth is a less comatose, more hopeful version of Allison Janney‘s American Beauty zombie mom. And apart from the Fishers, there are Brenda (Rachel Griffiths, Oscar-nominated for Hilary and Jackie), a former genius freak child, and her brother, with whom she has some yet-to-be-developed scary-close bond, and who is likely going to turn out to be crazier than the rest of them put together. It’s not that such people don‘t exist — they do, and even in such heavy concentrations, though they are not likely so uniformly good-looking. But as truth is stranger than fiction, fiction to seem truthful needs to be somewhat less strange than the truth can sometimes be. The Sopranos, for all the bullets and bada-bing, engage our sympathies because their problems look essentially like ours.
Obviously there is talent at work here; directors include Sopranos hands Allen Coulter and John Patterson, Lisa Cholodenko (High Art) and Miguel Arteta (Freaks & Geeks), and the cast is able, with the women more interesting than the men. Ball is a longtime Television Professional and can assemble an at least watchable hour, even if the opportunity to trade in heavy ideas carries him away. As did American Beauty, Six Feet Under has its striking moments — a camera angle here, a tableau there, a lovely line reading or an honest actorly reaction — and the regular passages of magic realism can be effective. (The corpses and ghosts with whom David converses are not exactly figments of his imagination; they tell him things he couldn’t make up. Likewise, Nate has frequent encounters with his deceased father — played by Richard Jenkins, from Flirting With Disaster, and a livelier character than either of his actually living sons.) But even when there‘s a fair amount of action, the show feels listless and dull (it is not much to look at), dictated and forced — the characters doing things the writers have merely made them do, rather than moving along on their own steam.
Despite the freaky veneer and the odd satirical sally against the sanitization of death — the pilot is interrupted by glamorous ”advertisements“ for face putty and embalming fluid — Six Feet Under is essentially conventional (no more outrageous than, say, Ally McBeal) and really pretty sentimental, even a little New Agey as regards Nate’s special ”gift . . . for channel[ing] other people‘s pain,“ its advocacy of meaningful grieving, and therapeutic dialogue: ”You could have told me you were proud of me,“ ”Haven’t you punished yourself enough?“ and so on. It‘s a lamb in wolf’s clothing, its edge-pushing more cosmetic than substantive. Because what makes a series like The Sopranos unfit for network television is not the breasts or bad words but its stubborn amorality, its refusal to judge, whereas good and bad are fairly well-defined in Six Feet Under, the heroes and villains easy to spot. We know just where we stand, and how much fun is that?
”You know what I wish?“ asks Claire Fisher. ”I wish just once people wouldn‘t act like the cliches that they are.“ That the show she inhabits is itself in no small part constructed of cliches is made evident in the incredible number of parallels it bears to MTV’s trashy new daily limited-run telenovela-style murder-mystery soap opera, Spyder Games: Here again a just-dead, secret-keeping dad leaves behind a family business (in this case a video-game empire), sowing seeds of dissension among his progeny; here again is the favored prodigal oldest son returned home to a life he fled; the uptight, closeted gay second son, suffering from pop-always-liked-you-best syndrome; the wild youngest child, sweet deep down, bugged by the sudden paternal pretensions of biggest brother. Spyder Games adds a fourth sibling, a tarty schemer with an impertinent bust (Shawn Batten, from the NBC soap Sunset Beach), for unlike Six Feet Under it doesn‘t have much on its mind but sex and money and power and maybe a little bit of true love — and that who-pop-liked-best question. Developed and written by veterans of Days of Our Lives, Generations and Married With Children, it’s been constructed for the audience its almost exclusively young cast reflects. (Once and future Go-Go Jane Wiedlin is around as the proprietress of the local coffeehouse, but she is, after all, an ageless pixie.) The actors, most of whom look vaguely like other, more famous actors, range from adequate to overqualified, while the production values are astonishingly, even refreshingly low: The sets are flimsy, underdressed and patently fake; the lighting (in the best telenovela manner) is overbright and ugly; and the women‘s costumes, designed to lift, squeeze and reveal, are oddly unflattering.
There is something to be said for a show that makes even General Hospital look deep and cinematic; it feels strangely . . . honest. If Spyder Games succeeds only on its own highly limited terms, it nevertheless succeeds. It’s a cheap carnival ride, the more fun for being so slapdash and rickety. There are no rounded, deeply imagined characters to be found here — depth, in this instance, means getting down to the sexy underwear — and yet I found myself wondering, as I did not about Six Feet Under, where the days ahead would take them.