In the premiere of HBO's praiseworthy new series Six Feet Under, Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) flashes back to the first time he saw his mortician father exhuming a corpse. The five-year-old child stares at his father--and the corpse--with eyes as big as saucers. The father (a superb Richard Jenkins) explains to his son what he is doing, and when the explanation fails to placate the child's expression, the father offers young Nate an industrial strength rubber glove and says, "You can touch him if you wear one of these." Nate flees.
In many ways, the scene summarizes the entire experience of Six Feet Under, a series from American Beauty author Alan Ball. Death on television is usually reserved for crime victims or overly dramatic ER patients. Like the corpse in the aforementioned scene, the theme of death is difficult for television to truly grasp. Six Feet Under offers the audience a chance to indulge its most creepy and graphic curiosities about death, with the comfort of the most industrial of rubber gloves--television. HBO hopes that the program will become its next Sopranos--that may be wishful-thinking, but after just one episode, Six Feet Under will win you over.
The Fisher family--Nate Sr., Ruth, Nate, David and Claire--operates Fisher and Sons funeral parlor in suburban Los Angeles. To call the family dysfunctional suggests that at some point in the past or the future, the family possessed or will possess a level of functionality--it's a misnomer. This family is imfunctional. For example, in just the first two episodes, Nate Sr. is killed when a bus broadsides his new hearse; his wife Ruth (Frances Conroy) admits to her children that she has been having an extra marital affair with a hairdresser from church; son Nate meets his younger sister, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), for the first time while she is high on crystal-meth; and son David (North Carolina native Michael Hall) tries to hide two things: his emotions about his father's death and his sexuality.
In addition to the family, Rachel Griffiths plays new-ager Brenda, Nate's girlfriend who he met and slept with on a flight from Seattle to Los Angeles, and Mathew St. Patrick plays David's boyfriend--both add a lot to the show and their non-Fisher-family perspectives amplify the program's effectiveness. The deceased father frequently appears as well--as a MacBeth-quality ghost. The acting is all-around excellent, although in the pilot, written by Ball, much of the dialogue for the female characters seemed forced and disjointed--similar to the problems that Ball faced with American Beauty.
As a matter of fact, from the eerie theme music (by American Beauty composer Thomas Newman) to the characters, the series could be described as American Beauty: The Series. Judging by the film's success, maybe HBO's projections for Six Feet Under are not so far-fetched after all.
--By Martin Barna