From hot bods to cold ones: The fourth season premiere of ”Sex and the City” is followed by the bow 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. 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” — HBO’s showcase series, which just ended its third season — did.