Alisa Cohen
July 09, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Must Die TV is back. In season 2 of Six Feet Under, the brutal wit of HBO’s Emmy-winning funeral-home drama shows no signs of decay: Mortician Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) and his girlfriend, wayward genius Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), inch toward a meltdown; Nate’s brother/business partner, David (Michael C. Hall), drifts back to ex-lover Keith (Mathew St. Patrick); sullen kid sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose) dabbles in bad boys and raw photography; and intimacy-starved matriarch Ruth (Frances Conroy) seeks solace in a self-help cult.

”We try … to allow the characters to grow and change and crash and burn and slowly put themselves back together,” says creator Alan Ball in his commentary about crafting some of TV’s most magnetic, multilayered players, whether they dominate the season (Hall’s ever-evolving David) or show up for two episodes (Patricia Clarkson, who sparkles as Ruth’s anything-goes sister, Sarah). Sex-crazed Brenda continues to startle, while Nate’s face-off with mortality gives him greater nuance — when his laidback veneer finally cracks, the shift is searing, not maudlin.

Some overblown plot strands — Claire’s gun-toting ex, Nate’s unplanned fatherhood, Ruth’s encounter with the Russian mob — are better suited for daytime soaps. Yet these are nonfatal flaws in an invigorating DVD — complete with the fascinating behind-the-scenes featurette ”Anatomy of a Working Stiff,” in which special-effects wizards transform actors into corpses, from head to toe tag. The bodies may be cold, but the show’s just getting warmed up.

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