“Six Feet Under” represents the follow-up to HBO’s superb drama series “The Sopranos,” and to creator Alan Ball’s superb Oscar-winning screenplay “American Beauty,” two projects that are dark, funny, unpredictable, even soulful. The same can be said of “Six Feet Under,” a smart, brooding, fanciful character-driven ensemble piece about a family in the funeral biz. The show ambitiously takes on death as its primary subject, providing a mix of the blackest of black comedy with deep psychological drama. In this hourlong series, death doesn’t lurk around corners; instead it sits down silently for dinner, like a family friend nobody really likes but nobody dares offend. The Fisher clan, proprietors of a Los Angeles mortuary, wears mortality the way a fisherman wears the smell of the daily catch — it never quite washes off.
Each episode begins with the demise of a guest star, whose embalming, funeral and burial become the responsibility of the Fisher & Sons mortuary. Ball launches his series by bringing death home in the most personal way possible: Fisher family patriarch Nathaniel, played by Richard Jenkins, is driving the family hearse to the airport on Christmas Eve to pick up his oldest son, Nate (Peter Krause), when he gets hit by a bus with full force.
Free-spirited, handsome Nate is in an airport storage closet having sex with a woman he met on the plane when he gets the news. Always terrified of death, he’d escaped the funeral home as soon as he could, moving to Seattle as a teenager, where he now works at an organic food co-op. His younger brother, David (Michael C. Hall), stayed and became their father’s responsible partner, taking on the pale, morose look and humorless manner of a mortician par excellence.
Frances Conroy plays Ruth, Nathaniel’s now-widow, like a frayed nerve ending — we’re never quite sure how oblivious she really is to her family’s fundamental dysfunction. In the pilot episode, we’re quite certain of her teenage daughter Claire’s obliviousness, since just before hearing of her father’s demise she’d inhaled some crystal meth pushed on her by a guy she’s got the hots for.
Obviously, Nathaniel’s death is completely different than any other, and yet David and Ruth try to go through the motions like they would for anyone else, which just makes it creepier. Nathaniel appears to each member of the family throughout the episode (and occasionally in future ones as well), not so much a ghost as an emotional presence. Other clients do so also in the ongoing episodes — the fresh corpses come alive to talk to David, always offering a meaningful, although often cryptic, lesson. Sometimes this is intended to be taken seriously, sometimes not — the most memorable one is a former porn star whose enormous, stiffened breasts lay exposed throughout much of the hour.
Yes, this show about death can be very funny. George Bernard Shaw once noted that “Life doesn’t cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” Indeed, Ball’s very effective way with black comedy is on full display. The pilot episode is interspersed with glossy mock commercials for funeral products, like embalming fluid — commercialism and corporate competition in the “death care industry” play a continuing role.
The Fishers’ one nonfamily employee, Federico (Freddy Rodriguez), is the “restorative artist” who brags a bit too proudly about his ability to make damaged corpses attractive.
In an early episode, Claire, who drives the family’s old hearse, painted green, steals a foot from a particularly mauled client and takes it to school. This tips the family off that she may need a little help, although she’s certainly not any more lost than the rest of her family.
The comedy can be broad but is always grounded in the reality of the characters, and while it’s peppered with irony and wit, the show is far less a comedy than a yearning drama, likely to have more female appeal than HBO’s hit mob series.
If “The Sopranos” is an explosive show, brimming with layers of deception and betrayal, “Six Feet Under” is an implosive one, built upon a foundation of repression. David, for example, hides his homosexuality, and his boyfriend, an African-American policeman named Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), chafes under David’s perpetual unwillingness to be open about their relationship. Nate and David barely speak, except about business, and when Ruth makes a determined effort to become closer with Claire, the teenager at first just ridicules the very idea of mother-daughter closeness. As in “American Beauty,” Ball’s view of family dynamics comes off as complex and nearly indecipherable — these folks are strangers.
The other major player here is Nate’s girlfriend, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). After their anonymous sex in the airport, they become quite the item. Brenda’s family — her parents are psychologists — make the Fishers look like the Nelsons. Griffiths stands out among this very fine cast, presenting this screwed-up genius as a kind of morbid optimist.
The show has plenty of polish, from Thomas Newman’s evocative theme music to Alan Caso’s elegant photography. Overall, this is a singular effort.