Will HBO bury its rivals with funereal fun?

MEMO TO: Alan Ball

FROM: Peter Bart

LET’S BE BLUNT about this, Alan. The pressure’s on you. Everyone expects you to deliver big-time. That’s the way it is at HBO these days.

Your new series, “Six Feet Under,” better make “The Sopranos” play like a soap or “Oz” like “The Sound of Music.”

You’re the guy, after all, who dreamed up “American Beauty.” And now you’re working for the network that viewers look to for their weekly fix of shock therapy.

You acknowledged as much last week when you screened your pilot before the proverbial Peggy Siegel celeb crowd in New York.

When HBO execs saw your first cut, their response was, “That’s fine, but make it crazier.” That’s what you told us, Alan. It’s as though HBO execs were conceding, “We can’t afford just to entertain you, we’ve got to appall you.”

EVERYONE IN THE industry is asking: How can we keep pace with HBO’s peculiar charisma?

NBC’s Bob Wright asked his programmers that question last week. On “Hardball,” Chris Matthews was nattering at TV producers to explain why “The Sopranos” has become a viewer obsession.

All this is a tribute to HBO but puts the onus on you now, Alan. You’ve decided to create a TV series about a family of undertakers. That’s a good start. All of us have a profound aversion to death and don’t want to become familiar with its service personnel. So you’ve got us disturbed going in — that’s the HBO way.

But I must tell you, Alan, your funereal family seems like sunny leftovers from “Father Knows Best” compared with the assemblage in “American Beauty.”

SURE, ONE SON IS shtupping a black cop, the cute daughter is a closet druggie, and daddy drove his hearse into the side of a bus, but this stuff is placid by HBO standards. Remember, we’re all brainwashed to believe that if it’s TV, it can’t be HBO.

In your opening remarks last week, Alan, you told us how lucky you felt in retrospect because your previous employer, ABC, canceled your 1999 show “Oh Grow Up.”

I’m sure your former associates envy your new position. You have your own show now, you directed the pilot, and you have vastly more money to spend on each segment.

The Big Four networks still can’t get over the fact that “The Sopranos” is actually shot in New Jersey. Think of that — at last a setting that doesn’t look like greater downtown Toronto. What an innovation!

HBO has committed to at least 13 segments of “Six Feet Under.” That will give you lots of time to make things crazier. We’re confident you’ll get us there, Alan. You owe it to your viewers.

Crazy is better, Alan. If you didn’t believe that, you’d still be back in movies.

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