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TV Series Review

Hollywood’s adoration for Six Feet Under follows a familiar pattern of praise that has elevated the status of Sex and the City and The Sopranos, two other envelope-pushing HBO series.

Leaving out the detective angle so popular in morgue shows from Quincy to CSI, American Beauty producer Alan Ball peers into the fictional goings-on of a mom-and-pop funeral parlor in Los Angeles. When Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. suddenly requires the services of his own business, sons David (Michael C. Hall) and Nate (Peter Krause) take it over. David is a dapper worker-bee who "just so happens" to have sex with other men. Nate’s a melancholy prodigal ensnared in a desperately unhealthy—straight—relationship. Timid and quaint, Mom (Frances Conroy) shocks even herself by obsessively pursuing a brusque florist. It’s also revealed she had been carrying on an affair before her husband’s death.

Those sexual preoccupations leave the teenage Claire (Lauren Ambrose) to raise herself. They also generate a cloud of despair darkened by a steady stream of drugs and alcohol. No one protests when Claire drinks beer, smokes pot and experiments with mushrooms. That’s probably because most of her adult role models have moved on to harder substances.

Routinely replacing chemicals as a mood modifier is sex. Gay sex. Group sex. Oral sex. Pornography. If this MA-rated TV series were a movie, its frank displays of simulated sexual acts—with explicit male and female nudity—would take it out of R territory and into NC-17.

Other staples include vulgar language and . . . corpses. As many as 50 f-words (often used as verbs) demolish every episode. And the f-word isn’t the most obscene expression uttered. Meanwhile, a morbid succession of dead bodies, some of them displayed nude, shroud even lighter moments.

Choice bits of wisdom drown in the formaldehyde. Claire slowly learns not to judge people without trying to get to know them first. Nate comes face to face with the awfulness of having encouraged old girlfriends to get abortions. But there aren’t enough Emmy awards in the world to justify sitting through an orgy hoping to witness a random object lesson.

Episodes Reviewed: May 5, 12, 19, July 14, 21, 28, 2002

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Steven Isaac

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