Because it airs on the same channel and night as The Sopranos, and is also created by a malcontent refugee from network TV, Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under will probably never escape comparisons to David Chase’s Mob-family series, and in a way, it shouldn’t. The Sopranos defined HBO’s commitment to making a series that would scare the bejesus out of network-television executives by offering not merely an unprecedented amount of sex, violence, and obscenity but also — in its quiet, layered subtlety — an exhilarating repudiation of the networks’ instinctive condescension toward their viewers and craven compliance with advertisers. Ball benefited mightily from Chase’s sweet, unexpected success. True, it’s likely that in the wake of the multiple Oscar wins for his feature film American Beauty, Ball would have been given a shot at whatever he wanted to do just by voluntarily lowering himself back into the snake pit of TV. But this tale of an extravagantly screwed-up Los Angeles family of undertakers, whose reviews are less universally favorable than Tony Soprano’s, might not have made it to its current, superior second season had HBO not seen how The Sopranos built (in dramatic richness, in audience outreach) on its own Hey, who knew we had a phenom here? rookie season.

Under, it turns out, is having a doozy of a sophomore outing. It’s become a showcase for diverse acting styles that nonetheless mesh tightly. Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall (Nate and David Fisher) share a certain deadpan, low-key quality, as befits two men playing brothers raised by a pathologically prim mother (Frances Conroy’s quiveringly meticulous Ruth) and a now-dead father (Richard Jenkins, the swingin’-est cadaver on cable) who bequeathed them not just caskets and hearses but also a secret history of private, lonely pleasures. The brothers’ emotionally shut-down solemnity leads them in different directions. This season, the revelation that Nate suffers from a possibly fatal brain disorder has given his free-floating angst some purpose. Until recently, he was reluctant to inform anyone about his health—not even the woman he’s now engaged to (Rachel Griffiths’ heartbreaking Brenda); Nate is, in a sense, living with death even more than when he prepares a body for burial.

Hall’s David, on the other hand, is more comfortable with his gay sexuality this season. Sure, he’s had a few bum blind dates, but he’s out there — as it were — taking chances, renouncing his previous shame, which has made Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), the hot cop who’d jilted him, freshly and friskily interested. I also love it when Nate and David must unite to battle their evil corporate competitor, Kroehner Service International exec Mitzi Huntley. Julie White plays her as a middle-aged, crazy-like-a-fox fox, swinging her ample hips while making the boys a succession of takeover offers they have so far refused. Mitzi’s a hoot and a half; she deserves a best-supporting Emmy just for embodying greed so voluptuously.

In fact, whether it’s conveying David’s newly freed lust, framing a shot of Mitzi in a bathing suit and spike-heeled pumps, or — the season’s most fascinating subplot — watching masseuse Brenda, restless from her good but familiar sex with Nate, explore kinky kicks with clients, Six Feet Under does a bang-up job with sex. Ball’s greatest theme, you might say, is balling.

On the other hand, the writing quality is erratic. Sometimes I think Ball may just give a writer a few minimal structural suggestions (”We have to move the Nate/Brenda relationship from here to here in this hour, but otherwise, have fun with it”), and then Ball (one of the exec producers) and that week’s handpicked director craft the best episode they can. That often results in terrific individual scenes, but doesn’t always deepen the series as a whole. (Examples of this creative waywardness are Ruth’s tedious est-parody subplot and the random way in which Nate and David’s sister, Claire, a sullen teen played with remarkable expressiveness by Lauren Ambrose, is given unplayable mood swings and psycho boyfriends.)

Unlike Chase, who seems to be carrying the entire run of The Sopranos as a well-thought-out saga in his brain, Ball frequently seems to be tossing off ideas and seeing how they play out. As a serial-drama plan, that can be frustrating for a Six Feet Under devotee, but there’s no denying that this freewheeling approach is also giving us some entrancing surprises.

Six Feet Under
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