Good grief

Perhaps the greatest miracle of "Six Feet Under" lies in realizing how wretched it should logically be.

The major attributes of creator/ executive producer Alan Ball's acclaimed HBO comedy/drama read like a laundry list of bad-sitcom conceits. Start with the black-comic premise that the Fishers, the California family whose travails the show documents, own and operate a mom-and-pop funeral home bequeathed to them by their deceased patriarch, Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) -- who doesn't let a little thing like being dead prevent him from having the occasional heart-to-heart chat with one of his wisdom-hungry progeny. Move on down to son David (Michael C. Hall), a neurotic fuss-budget coming out of the closet as a gay man. Factor in daughter Claire's (Lauren Ambrose) teen-aged sass and predilection for keeping bad company, which put her at frequent loggerheads with her prim mother, Ruth (Frances Conroy). Finally, just look at the family's eldest child, Nate (Peter Krause), a scruffy rebel whose outward appearance invites immediate comparison to the star of a previous, unspectacular HBO series, "The Hitchhiker." A setup like this is prone to make you forget the hearses and cry out for the next available taxi.

Instead, as we viewers learned in 13 addictive episodes last year, Ball (who also writes for the series and directed its pilot) has brought his handful of story elements together into a tube-watching experience that doesn't merely rank among the finest the medium has to offer. Rather, any given episode from "Six Feet Under"'s first season was able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best films of the last few years, exceeding even the insight and sensitivity of Ball's own script for the feature "American Beauty."

Buoyed by brilliant writing, acting and direction, the show transcends expectations as easily as it shatters stereotypes. Hall, for example, remains clear of the one-joke ghetto for which he at first appeared destined. His David is no caricature, but a fully rounded human being trying to reconcile his sexuality with his sincere religious beliefs, all the while navigating the emotional and financial pitfalls of a family business. His perpetually fascinating journey is typical of the program's narrative complexity, which invites us to take sides, debate issues and reexamine our moral precepts. Is the talented junior mortician Freddy (Federico Diaz) justified in his resentment at not being made a partner in Fisher & Sons? Or is he a presumptuous opportunist who expects more of his employers than he has a right to? That there are no correct an-swers make the questions worth asking.

The series' second season, which begins Sunday, March 3, thankfully offers mort of the same. The four episodes that were available for preview show Ball's commitment to quality undiminished and his dramatic instincts every bit as keen. To delve into too many details would deny the show's soap-operatic thrust, which keeps us coming back week after week without ever feeling as if we're succumbing to stunt programming. But some of the major plot threads bear repeating. In a revisitation of last season's cliff-hanger, Krause's Nate (who, more than any other character, embodies the program's philosophical resilience) wrestles with a serious medical condition that casts a shadow across every aspect of his life -- especially his relationship with his girlfriend, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), a former child prodigy whose intellectual alienation appears to be leading her toward a meltdown of her own. Young Claire likewise has trauma to address, as brought about by her volatile relationship with bad-boy beau Gabe (Eric Balfour). In their emotional confrontation, Ambrose reveals deeper talents than her obvious ability to hold her tart-tongued own with Janeane Garofalo or Natasha Lyonne. She's a serious actress who fully deserves the award honors already conferred on Hall by the American Film Institute, on Krause by the Screen Actors Guild and on Griffiths by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Griffiths' presence continues to be a major coup for "Six Feet Under," a beacon of its ability to attract top-flight cinema talent. The fourth episode of the new season was directed by Michael Cuesta, the writer and director of the controversial art-house drama "L.I.E." And while we pine (probably fruitlessly) for the return of Illeana Douglas, whose guest role last year as a free-spirited embalming artist was both hilarious and heartfelt, there's just as much to enjoy in the visit of character actress Lili Taylor, who in Cuesta's episode plays a Seattle-based earth mother with a lingering affection for Nate.

In one knee-slapping subplot, mother Ruth becomes drawn into an EST-like self-actualization program. Actress Alice Krige portrays the guru in charge, a honey-voiced seminar speaker whose name tag reads "Alma" -- an apparent nod to the succubus Alma Mobley, who Krige played in the film adaptation of Peter Straub's novel "Ghost Story." This is a program that rewards attentive viewing, if you'll pardon the funereal pun.

But it isn't in-joke trivia that has made the show such a deserved success. It's a vitality of spirit that feeds off of (rather than contradicts) the series' morbid subject matter. Though every episode is structured around the Fishers' receipt of another newly deceased client -- with all the attendant options for graveyard humor duly explored -- "Six Feet Under" revels in life and all its possibilities. The more bodies hit the floor, the more the program comes alive. It's joy in a shroud, an often subtle, sometimes sarcastic yet consistently persuasive argument that every breath is precious and every stolen moment a rare gift.

No wonder the new season is so eagerly anticipated by a nation that, in the downtime between seasons, was forced into a shocking awareness of its own mortality. Like the best of funeral directors, Ball's brood offers condolences, dignity and steadfast goodwill in potentially devastating times. They may make their living as undertakers, but they haven't let us down yet.

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