What TV can learn from ''Six Feet Under.'' Listen up, network programmers! EW.com draws three important lessons from this year's Emmy frontrunner

By Brian Hiatt
Updated September 11, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Six Feet Under: Art Streiber
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What TV can learn from ”Six Feet Under”

”The Sopranos” aside, there’s nothing necessarily magical about the words ”HBO original series.” Just ask anyone who’s attempted to watch the perplexingly persistent ”Arliss” or ”The Mind of a Married Man.” But the channel’s two-season-old ”Six Feet Under,” which snagged 23 Emmy nominations this year, is the latest evidence that there really might be something to that ”it’s not TV” stuff.

With ”Six Feet” earning more nominations than any other show (”The West Wing” came closest, with 21 nods) what lessons should the rest of the TV world take from the series? Here are three to get started.

Get weird ”Six Feet” creator Alan Ball and his writing staff aren’t afraid to push their stories to soap-operatic extremes, whether it’s Brenda (Rachel Griffith) becoming a sex addict, Ruth (Frances Conroy) joining a cult called The Plan, or Nate (Peter Krause) developing a potentially fatal illness and then accidentally fathering a child. Any of these scenarios could have shattered the show’s verisimilitude if handled in, say, David E. Kelly’s willfully silly, Ally-McBeal-discovers-her-secret-daughter style.

But ”Six Feet” always maintains black-humored empathy for its characters; the show makes it possible to sympathize with, or at least understand, Brenda even as she betrays poor Nate with everyone short of the milkman (actually, the milkman may have been involved — we lost track). And Ruth, who could have been played strictly for laughs, is instead one of the show’s most heartbreaking figures. While her Plan-induced comments about ”renovating my house” were often hilarious, it was always clear that her cult-dabbling was a product of her crushing loneliness and late-life bewilderment. That still doesn’t explain Nikolai and that hairdresser, though.

Get gay Well, not necessarily. But TV creators SHOULD open up to gay characters that are as three-dimensional and free of stereotypes as their straight counterparts. On ”Six Feet,” David’s (Michael C. Hall) on-again, off-again relationship with his partner Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) is presented on equal footing with Brenda and Nate’s struggles — as it should be.

And while David’s slow journey out of the closet is compelling, Keith — a macho cop who just happens to be gay — is an even more unique character. Contrary to Hollywood tradition, few of Keith’s problems have anything to do with his sexuality. He’s perfectly comfortable with it; instead, he’s plagued by a drug-addicted sister and an Eminem-worthy anger-management problem. And did we mention he’s an African American cop in post-O.J. Simpson Los Angeles?

Get deep ”Six Feet Under” is, at its heart, a show that confronts death on a weekly basis — which makes its success all the more surprising. Though most hit TV shows don’t shove their audiences’ mortality in their faces, ”Six Feet”’s rise suggests that we’re hungry for entertainment that addresses issues deeper than Ross and Rachel’s romance. In a culture obsessed with taut-tummied youth, maybe there’s something satisfying about a show that reminds us again and again that we’re all going to die — maybe sooner than we expect.

But the show’s depth isn’t limited to the omnipresence of the Grim Reaper; it’s also evident in its characters. As a child genius turned wigged-out massage therapist, Brenda is one of TV’s most complex figures. Brenda’s creepy relationship with her brother — and her past as the protagonist in the psychological study ”Charlotte Light and Dark” — seems more at home in a novel than a TV show. And that, believe it or not, is a good thing.

Six Feet Under

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