By EW Staff
March 06, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Image credit: 6 Feet Under: Larry Watson
WHERE THERE’S A ‘WILL’… The show’s second episode finds the Fishers sorting out assets

01 Pilot
Writer Alan Ball Director Ball Plot Driving to pick up older son Nate (Peter Krause) at the airport, L.A. funeral-home owner Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins) is killed when a bus slams into his hearse. Meanwhile, Nate enjoys a quickie in an airport janitor’s closet with Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths), a masseuse he met on the plane. Nathaniel’s death rocks his family, which includes unfaithful wife Ruth (Frances Conroy), closeted gay son David (Michael C. Hall), and drugged-out teen daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose). Introduces The Fisher family; Brenda; Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez), a Fisher employee who’s gifted at reconstructing disfigured corpses; Keith Charles (Mathew St. Patrick), David’s African-American cop boyfriend; Gabe Dimas (Eric Balfour), Claire’s bad-influence future boyfriend; and Billy (Jeremy Sisto), Brenda’s bipolar brother. Best Line ”Oh, it’s great. My father’s dead, my mom’s a whore, my brother wants to kill me, and my sister’s smoking crack. I think I win.” (Nate, after Brenda asks how things are going) Historic Moments Nathaniel’s ghost chats with his family for the first time, Ruth confesses her longtime affair with a widowed hairdresser, and corporate funeral-home chain Kroehner makes its first play to buy out the Fishers’ business. Critique Creator Ball gracefully establishes the series’ tricky tonal mix of dysfunctional-family drama and morbid comedy. Interstitial faux commercials for mortician products like Living Splendor embalming fluid disrupt the flow (and will later be dropped), but ”Six”’s top-drawer cast (especially winning ”Sports Night” veteran Krause and Aussie import Griffiths, unveiling her spot-on American accent) engages viewers immediately. In short, we dig it. A-

02 The Will
Writer Christian Williams Director Miguel Arteta Kickoff Death A pyramid-scheme artist dies in a swimming-pool accident. Plot The family hears Nathaniel’s will, in which he leaves the business to both of his sons. Introduces Hiram Gunderson (”St. Elsewhere”’s Ed Begley Jr.), Ruth’s paramour; Vanessa Diaz (Justina Machado), Federico’s pregnant wife; and Jennifer Mason (Missy Yager), David’s ex-fiancée. Best Line ”So did Dad ever say anything to you that might explain why he would do this, like ‘By the way, Federico, I’ve lost my f—in’ mind’?” (Nate) Historic Moment Nate transports his first stiff — which has an erection. Critique Though the pacing is a little poky because the characters are still being fleshed out, the episode effectively sets up one of ”Six”’s central conflicts: the clash between dutiful son David and reluctant partner Nate. B+

03 The Foot
Writer Bruce Eric Kaplan Director John Patterson Kickoff Death A bakery worker is mangled in a giant mixer; his severed foot later goes missing. Plot Nate persuades David to sell to Kroehner, then experiences an epiphany and decides they should run the business together as Fisher & Sons. Kroehner retaliates by opening a cut-rate crematorium across the street, which soon mysteriously catches fire. Best Line ”Mom, apparently you want a child with an eating disorder.” (Claire, after Ruth repeatedly asks if she’s bulimic) Historic Moment When Gabe brags to friends that Claire sucked his feet (thus earning her the nickname Toe Slut), she leaves the baker’s foot in his locker as revenge. Critique The script gets considerable comic mileage out of the toe business, but a subplot about Ruth losing $25,000 at the track goes nowhere. B

04 Familia
Writer Laurence Andries Director Lisa Cholodenko Kickoff Death A Chicano gangbanger (”Kingpin”’s Jacob Vargas) gets murdered by rival thugs. Plot David asks Rico to help deal with the gang leader who’s paying for the funeral. The cops question Nate and Brenda about the fire, but it’s Claire who becomes a suspect. Best Line ”Not quite as ‘Addams Family’ as I’d expected.” (Brenda, upon entering the funeral home) Historic Moments Keith’s temper flares for the first time when he assails a homophobe in a parking lot. Ruth invests some of her late husband’s insurance money in Fisher & Sons. Critique The episode makes an effective point about prejudice (David doesn’t realize that Rico is Puerto Rican, not Mexican) before turning maudlin with a simplistic, let’s-all-join-hands resolution. B-

EX FACTOR Brenda with her former beau, in ”Crossroads”

05 An Open Book
Writer Ball Director Kathy Bates Kickoff Death Aging porn queen Viveca St. John accidentally electrocutes herself in the tub. Plot Nate meets Brenda’s parents over dinner (unaware that she won’t be joining them) and has his first charged encounter with her brother, Billy. Introduces Joanna Cassidy (”Buffalo Bill”) and Robert Foxworth (”Falcon Crest”) as Brenda’s loopy folks, shrinks Margaret and Bernard Chenowith; David Noroña as Claire’s guidance counselor, Gary Deitman. Historic Moments Nate finds out about the book ”Charlotte Light and Dark,” a psychological case study about Brenda as a troubled child genius, and learns David is gay when he spots him having lunch with Keith (the couple later splits). Creative Casting Real-life ex-porn star Veronica Hart as Viveca. Critique Bates brings a deliciously warped sense of humor and visual style to Ball’s titillating script; bonus points for wittily incorporating clips from ”Oz” (which Bates has also directed) and ”Gilmore Girls.” A

06 The Room
Writer Christian Taylor Director Rodrigo García Kickoff Death An old woman dies in her sleep. Plot Nate learns his dad was a pothead who bartered funeral services for weed — and finds a secret room in a seedy apartment Nathaniel rented to blow off steam. Introduces Nikolai (Ed O’Ross), a Russian florist who plants a kiss on Ruth. Best Line ”My friends and I were all over this book, like, three summers ago, before they all turned into pretentious drama nerds and totally abandoned me — thank God.” (Claire, discussing ”Charlotte Light and Dark”) Historic Moment Claire meets Billy and promptly makes out with him. Critique García (the son of Gabriel García Marquez) proves an inspired choice to direct this haunting episode, with its surreal scenes of Nate getting high with his dead father and flashbacks to Brenda’s bizarro childhood. A-

07 Brotherhood
Writer Williams Director Jim McBride Kickoff Death A 29-year-old vet succumbs to Gulf War syndrome. Plot Ruth takes a job at Nikolai’s flower shop, and Billy goes off his meds. Introduces Robbie (Joel Brooks), Nikolai’s gay assistant, and Parker (Marina Black), Claire’s party-girl classmate. Historic Moment Nate tells Brenda he loves her for the first time, leaving her speechless. Critique A preachy tone overwhelms this low-key and largely uneventful episode. Brenda’s travails with needy brother Billy are taking screen time away from the Fishers; one dysfunctional family is enough, thanks. C+

08 Crossroads
Writer Andries Director Allen Coulter Kickoff Death A freshly divorced woman dies in a freak limo accident. Plot Kroehner secretly hires Rico to reconstruct the limo lady’s now-concave head. During a dry spell, Nate rents out space in the house for a seniors’ square-dancing class. Claire bonds with Parker on an outreach hike. Best Line ”Come on, David, I watch ‘Will & Grace.’ I have gay-dar.” (Nate, after setting up his brother with the dance teacher) Historic Moment Rico learns that Kroehner burned down its own crematorium for the insurance money — and quits Fisher after the brothers refuse to make him a partner. Critique One of the series’ richest hours ever: Among the myriad highlights are Nate’s drug-fueled meltdown over Brenda’s exhibitionistic ex-boyfriend and Ruth’s sexual fantasy about Nikolai as a conquering cossack. Coulter’s seamless direction rivals his finest work on ”The Sopranos.” A

‘UNDER’ SIEGE Claire’s boyfriend Gabe robs a liquor store in ”Knock Knock”

09 Life’s Too Short
Writer Taylor Director Jeremy Podeswa Kickoff Death Gabe’s 6-year-old brother accidentally kills himself with their dad’s gun. Plot Claire tries to comfort Gabe, and Nate flunks his funeral director’s exam. David does Ecstasy (and hides two extra pills in his family’s aspirin bottle). Introduces Eddie (Terrell Clayton), Keith’s EMT boyfriend; Andy (”Undeclared”’s Timm Sharp), Gabe’s dope-smoking bud. Critique Life’s too short to subject yourself to such a supremely depressing episode. Even his brother’s death doesn’t generate much sympathy for the inherently unlikable Gabe. And when Ruth unwittingly (but predictably) takes one tab of X on a camping trip, the hour’s only ostensible dose of humor proves a major buzz kill. C

10 The New Person
Writer Kaplan Director Bates Kickoff Death An obnoxious salesman’s wife whacks him on the head with a skillet. Plot The Fishers hire Angela (Illeana Douglas) to replace Rico, but her uncensored mouth and skimpy wardrobe get her canned (and Rico reemployed). Nate is pissed to see a secretly taken picture of him peeing in Billy’s photo exhibit. Best Line ”I just want to apologize in advance because I had calamari last night for dinner…. This is the one time where the strong smell of formaldehyde really comes in handy.” (Angela) Historic Moments Brenda’s mom tells her Billy once plotted to kill his family; Angela outs David to Ruth. Critique Douglas’ Emmy-nominated guest turn immediately injects the often-morose drama with new life, as does a fantasy musical sequence that allows ”Cabaret” alum Hall to show off his song-and-dance skills. B+

11 The Trip
Writer Rick Cleveland Director Michael Engler Kickoff Death A 3-week-old baby dies from SIDS, freaking out expectant father Rico. Plot David, Nate, and Brenda go to a funeral directors’ convention in Las Vegas, where Billy stalks them. Gabe OD’s on speed and heroin, and Claire suspects that it was a suicide attempt. Historic Moments David gets busted with a hustler, and Keith bails him out; Rico’s son Augusto is born. Creative Casting ”SNL” vet Mary Gross as the dopey teacher of Ruth’s flower-arranging class. Critique Billy’s psycho routine is growing tiresome, and it’s too soon after Gabe’s brother to go back to the dead-kid well. But Hall turns David’s anti-Kroehner rant at the convention into a tour de force, and his encounter with a buxom lap dancer is a hoot. B-

12 A Private Life
Writer Kate Robin Director García Kickoff Death A gay man is beaten to death by two thugs. Plot The hate crime shakes up David, who subsequently comes out to his mother. Brenda breaks up with Nate after he says Billy should be institutionalized? but when Billy comes at her with a knife, she signs the commitment papers. Best Line ”I actually think about things besides trying to figure out how to puke after lunch without anyone noticing.” (Claire, contrasting herself with her peers) Creative casting Series creator Ball appears in a silent cameo as Billy’s doctor. Critique Somber without becoming ponderous, ”Life” allows Joel Brooks’ delightfully bitchy Robbie his first real chance to shine, as he counsels Ruth about dealing with her gay son. Hall and Conroy play the coming-out scene with masterful subtlety. Why haven’t these two won Emmys yet? A-

13 Knock Knock
Writer Ball Director Ball Kickoff Death A woman is hit in the head by a golf ball. Plot While arguing with Nate, Brenda crashes her car. She’s fine, but Nate’s CAT scan raises concerns about AVM, a potentially fatal brain condition. Gabe impulsively holds up a liquor store. Introduces Dragon-lady Kroehner exec Mitzi Dalton-Huntley (”Grace Under Fire”’s Julie White). Best Line ”Because of me, you’ve become born-again. I’m so sorry.” (Brenda, after Nate says he prayed for her recovery) Historic Moments Hiram dumps Ruth for another woman, leaving her surprisingly unfazed. Ruth reunites with Nikolai but tells him she’ll never marry him. Critique Despite melodramatic twists (Nate’s health scare, Gabe’s gunplay), the first-season finale is a relatively low-key affair. But even without major cliff-hangers, the episode dangles enough loose ends to sustain fans’ interest for season 2. B