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

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