By Ken Tucker
March 14, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

HBO prides itself on not being mere television: You know — it’s… HBO! Which is great when ”it” is a series like The Sopranos or a sitcom like Curb Your Enthusiasm or a yummily hambone TV movie like The Gathering Storm. But what about the current scenario: Those series are on hiatus; the flagship drama is season 3 of Six Feet Under, the comedy is the new Real Time With Bill Maher, and the TV movie is an earnest effort about a man who tells the guys down at the factory, ”I’m a female born in a man’s body”? These are the weeks when HBO subscribers start pulling out their checkbooks to tote up just how much entertainment they’re getting for their money.

Certainly, Bad Sight of the Week (as the British critic Clive James used to say in his TV reviews) is In the Bedroom’s Tom Wilkinson dressed as a frumpy, cross-gendered woman in Normal. Jane Anderson has adapted and directed her own play Looking for Normal, and I don’t care if she tells me this is how Midwestern middle-aged men have come out to their wives about wanting a sex change — it’s not believable as drama for more than three minutes. Jessica Lange is dithery-dandy as Wilkinson’s alternately baffled and angry wife, but Wilkinson’s role is unplayable. What salt-of-the-earth laborer, having decided after 25 years of marriage that it’s time he put on earrings and a housedress, would just wake up one day and splash perfume behind his ears as a way of announcing to his work buddies that he’s turning femme? Normal makes a poignant situation ludicrous — indeed, insulting to heartland transgendered folk.

Speaking of ludicrous, why would cable’s most innovative network — and I say that with neither irony nor some iron hand of AOL Time Warner corporate synergy on my shoulder — think it’s a good idea to let Bill Maher bring the skeleton of his canceled ABC show, Politically Incorrect, and stuff it into the tattered corpse of Dennis Miller Live? That’s all Real Time With Bill Maher is: a live hour in which the sour comedian regathers old friends like hate-spewing harridan Ann Coulter to yammer about the evils of affirmative action and feminism. On Maher’s premiere, former HBO stalwart Chris Rock dropped in for a few seconds and exploded the dull conversation; when he exited, any life left with him.

Departing life is what Six Feet Under is all about, of course. Creator Alan Ball’s saga of the mortuary-owning Fisher family has become stylistically schematic. Each episode still begins with a death. The clan, played by Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, and Lauren Ambrose, has — except for Krause’s intriguingly back-from-the-dead Nate — settled into predictable postures (Hall’s funeral director David is gay and uptight; Conroy’s Ruth is menopausal and uptight; Ambrose’s teen sister Claire is artily neurotic and uptight) that are disrupted only by guest stars.

Thank goodness the guests are so good. Kathy Bates barrels in as if straight from the set of About Schmidt to play a liberating, ya-gotta-live-life pal for Ruth. Lili Taylor is back as Nate’s new wife (and the mother of his child) who weighs his wandering spirit down with her damp neediness. And Catherine O’Hara is fabulous as a demanding L.A. producer who hires Taylor as her assistant (she calls from a dinner party thrown by Pam Dawber and Mark Harmon, insisting that Taylor recite a salad-dressing recipe).

I’ve left out one regular — Nate’s once (and future? and past?) girlfriend, Brenda. Rachel Griffiths’ rapacious performance last season as a woman out of sexual control gave her and Krause the series’ best moments. When she finally returns in this year’s fifth episode, the pair sparks again in a way that reminds you that beneath the rich acting talent, there’s a dearth of character development and thematic ideas about six inches under Feet’s surface.

Like Tony Soprano, HBO has gotten away with murder, positioning itself as the classiest pay-cable outlet. Rebuttal, please, your honor: I call to the stand Arli$$, Real Sex, and Taxicab Confessions. But it deserves gratitude for populating our TV rooms with characters we normally would think twice about letting in the door (the kooky cons of Oz; the soulful skag heads of The Corner; Tony Soprano applies here too). HBO is a haven for art that might otherwise go homeless, such as the network’s upcoming production of Tony Kushner’s epic play Angels in America and David Milch’s intriguing-sounding new take on the Western called Deadwood. And love that Da Ali G Show. Still, doubt gnaws: Maybe they have to schedule a Cathouse to pay for a Corner, but why hasn’t HBO developed, say, a decent children’s series? And why pick up a late-night guy whom even wrongheaded old ABC had the good sense to dump? Normal: D Real Time: D- Six Feet: B+