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June 08, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

In life, one must face one’s own mortality because it is the inevitable course of nature, an unfathomable destiny finally realized. On the set of Alan Ball’s new HBO series, ”Six Feet Under,” one must face one’s own mortality because…well, it’s lying naked on a gurney right in front of you. In a clinical embalming room filled with creepy tube-sprouting devices and colored fluids, Brian Poth, ”Six”’s dearly departed guest star of the week, is killing time between takes of a scene in which he plays — now stay with us here — the spirit of a gay-bashing victim who taunts the semi-closeted mortician who’s restoring his contusion-covered, autopsy-scarred corpse. While the camera repositions, the swollen-faced actor watches the special-effects artists touch up his prosthetic body double, impeccably detailed down to the nasal hairs. ”Hey,” snickers one of the artists, nodding to the small towel covering the corpse’s groin, ”do you want to see yourself?” The actor nods cautiously and the modesty cloth is removed. ”Whoa,” he says, eyes widening. ”Look familiar?” asks the artist. The actor chokes back a laugh and shakes his head wistfully: ”Not really.” Ball appears equally impressed with the deceased masterpiece. ”This is amazing,” he mutters to fellow exec producer Alan Poul as they survey the scene. ”The makeup looks fabulous. It’s so upsetting.”

To say nothing of the dialogue.

Gay-bashed corpse: ”You should have just left me the way I was, let the world see me for who I really am — an abomination of nature.” Closeted mortician: ”Shut up. Who you are is nothing to be ashamed of.” Gay-bashed corpse: ”That’s a little hard to buy, coming from somebody who cruises for d— on the Internet and has unsafe sex with prostitutes.”

Hmm, just a typically morose day on the set?

”I think this one’s a little more intense and more, um, brutal,” Ball says, checking out the monitor: ”But we have a lot of f—ed-up scenes.”

”Sometimes this show is much more poignant and sometimes it’s completely unsentimental,” chimes in Poul. ”It’s about as bitter a pill as you can take. You won’t find this on ‘Queer as Folk.”’

Or anywhere else on the dial, for that matter. In a television environment polluted with sameness (six New York cop shows aired this season; three CIA dramas debut this fall), HBO is once again offering up a blast of fresh air. ”Six Feet Under” is a frank, trippy, spiritual, witty drama about a fraying L.A. family that runs a funeral home. It also happens to be created by a guy who knows from fantastical family dystopia — Alan Ball, Oscar-winning writer of ”American Beauty.” ”This is TV for people who don’t really like TV,” he says with a knowing chuckle. ”I wouldn’t say it’s a show about the funeral industry or about a funeral home. It’s a show about this particular family, their lives, their loves, and their struggles. It’s about people attempting to live an authentic life in a world that’s increasingly inauthentic…. The world of a funeral home is a perfect place to set a show because we all go through there. I think our culture tends to deny the reality of death. We’re a little bit in the closet about it. This show is trying to demystify the whole process.”

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