The HBO show is earning the kind of numbers even ''The Sopranos'' would have killed for

By Lynette Rice
August 17, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Six Feet Under: Larry Watson
  • TV Show

What’s a funeral home drama got to do to drum up some decent outrage these days? ”Six Feet Under” has trotted out adultery, drug use, toe sucking, lost corpse limbs, even gay sex with a square-dance caller, and still the nation’s morticians (and 5 million weekly viewers) are thrilled with the depiction. ”It’s a fairly realistic presentation of a family in the death care industry,” says Ron Hast, publisher of Mortuary Management, the Variety of the cadaver community. And ”Six” creator Alan Ball is glad to have their endorsement. ”I wanted to portray them as human beings, not freaks,” says Ball. ”These people face death for the rest of us. There’s something kind of heroic in that.”

Not to mention appealing. Those 5 million viewers have helped ”Six” set an HBO record for the largest audience for a new series, far surpassing the first season of ”The Sopranos” (3.3 million). Those kinds of numbers not only up the ”you simply must subscribe to HBO” buzz factor (the precise impact it’s had on HBO’s 33 million-strong subscriber base is difficult to gauge, since its cable operators don’t usually collect that kind of data), they make the decision to order a second season before the drama even debuted seem positively prescient. ”It was exactly what we hoped for in terms of creative execution,” says HBO president of original programming Chris Albrecht, who saw the entire first season before inking the deal. ”It also gave us a chance to control our own destiny, to have this show available to put in a slot and hold on to it.”

It will certainly come in handy come winter 2002, when HBO will have a mammoth hole to fill on Sunday nights. Season 4 of ”The Sopranos” — which typically bows by March — is not set to return until at least June, so ”Six” (which has its season finale Aug. 19) will fill the void. ”We knew that [‘Sopranos’ creator] David Chase usually takes a little longer than 12 months to prepare,” says Albrecht. ”That certainly factored into [picking up ‘Six’].”