By Ken Tucker
June 01, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

If you think you’re suffering from ”Sopranos” withdrawal, imagine the shivering bodies curled into corners of HBO offices these days. Their best show just wrapped a thunderously good third season; now what? Something old, something new: Taking ”The Sopranos”’ spot Sundays at 9 p.m. is a fourth season of cat scratch fever on Sex and the City (premiering with back-to-back fresh episodes this week before ceding the 9:30 p.m. slot to ”Arli$$”), followed by the premiere of ”Six Feet Under,” the series that HBO hopes will become its newest cult sensation, from the Oscar-winning screenwriter of ”American Beauty,” Alan Ball.

”Sex” mavens Darren Star and Michael Patrick King still have a few canny variations on loneliness ‘n’ lust for the four single gals in Manhattan (Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, and Kristin Davis). Last season, Davis’ Charlotte married a limp stiff played by Kyle MacLachlan. Impotence is a dead-end subplot, so while MacLachlan appears in the premiere, he and Charlotte are separated now, which frees her up to join the ladies for endless lunches of hot water with a slice of lemon, while they answer naughty questions like what actor they pleasure themselves to on boy-less nights. (Parker’s Carrie: ”[George] Clooney’s like a Chanel suit — he’ll always be in style.”)

”Sex”’s first episode makes good use of Manhattan landmarks. Cattrall’s Samantha passes a church I recognize as the famous New York actor’s place of worship, the Little Church Around the Corner (here called All Souls) and instantly falls for a hunk in monk’s robes played by Costas Mandylor. (Hey, Costas, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts is just around that church’s real-life East 29th Street corner — you could use a couple of refresher classes.) Samantha’s newfound spirituality is a kick. Equally amusing is the second episode, in which Carrie is asked to be a celebrity model in a fashion show. Guest stars Margaret Cho and Alan Cumming are dandy as rag-trade hardnoses, and Chris Noth, as Carrie’s eternally elusive soul mate, Mr. Big, looks like a sleek, happy shark in a too-brief cameo. Overall, however, ”Sex and the City” is beginning to seem rather tame for HBO — once you’ve programmed raunch like ”G-String Divas,” randy sitcoms just seem…randy.

From hot bods to cold ones: I’ll go out on a limb and say that Six Feet Under deserves an Emmy — if they gave one out for opening credits. Beautifully crisp shots of the undertaker’s trade (a corpse on a gurney, a plot of land) whisk past, accompanied by a plangent instrumental theme: It’s a stunner. So, unfortunately, is the pace of ”Six Feet Under” — it may take a few episodes for you to become absorbed in the quiet pain of this series’ family of body buriers. Peter Krause (”Sports Night”) and Michael C. Hall play brothers Nate and David Fisher, who, in the show’s debut, inherit an L.A. funeral home upon the death of their father (the terrifically wry Richard Jenkins, seen in frequent dream sequences). They must care for their overwrought mother, Ruth (an eloquently subtle Frances Conroy) and their druggy, sneery, teenage sister, Claire, a hellzapoppin’ redhead played by Lauren Ambrose (”Can’t Hardly Wait”).

The show borrows heavily from Jessica Mitford’s classic inside-undertaking tome, ”The American Way of Death” (and has fantasy sequences, which come uncomfortably close to an old HBO show that I doubt Ball wants to evoke, ”Dream On”). Ball also draws parallels between the embalming profession and the formaldehyde effect of repressed emotions. Thus David is petrified to admit that he’s gay and secretly dating a handsome LAPD cop (Michael St. Patrick), while Nate meets a woman on the way home to L.A. who’s at once alluring and, as he later admits to her, a little scary in her soulful intensity (she’s played slyly by ”Hilary and Jackie” ‘s Rachel Griffiths).

In recent interviews, Ball and HBO execs have been adamant about not wanting ”Six” to be like network fare, in which characters spell out their motives to the dunderheaded public. (Apparently, you automatically gain IQ points if you can cough up monthly dough for premium cable.) Yet each of the six episodes I saw of ”Six Feet” had at least one moment when someone spills beans, or sprouts a new scruple: ”My whole life I’ve been a tourist,” Krause proclaims in the third episode. ”Now I have the chance to do some good instead of just sucking up air.” Extremely well acted, ”Six” is a show I’ll keep watching; I’m just not convinced it’ll be sucking up the same pop-culture air that ”The Sopranos” did. ”Sex and the City” Grade: B ”Six Feet Under” Grade: B+