Six Feet Under: The Complete First Season (DVD)

Six Feet Under: The Complete First Season (DVD)

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Six Feet Under: The Complete First Season (DVD)

For all its frank sexuality and casual drug use, HBO's Six Feet Under is really just a family drama like any other. In each episode of the first season (now on DVD), the Fisher family faces individual crises large or small, and then reconvenes at the kitchen table to commiserate and ask advice. Wholesome stuff, really, like Eight Is Enough with more Ecstasy tweaking, pot paranoia, and gay cruising. The show's real kink derives from its funeral-home setting, which puts mortality and mourning at the center of every story. Funeral director Michael C. Hall, his free-spirited older brother Peter Krause, their angst-ridden adolescent sister Lauren Ambrose, and their widowed mother Frances Conroy are all acutely aware of how close they are to death, and it affects their behavior, making them by turns compassionate and reckless. Six Feet Under was created by Alan Ball, who won an Academy Award for his cynically witty American Beauty screenplay. His series suffers from a slight case of American Beauty-itis in the early stages: There's a shade too much misery-of-suburbia, as Ball and company mistakenly try to pitch the relatively stable, upper-middle-class Fishers as the model of dysfunction. But confronting the mysteries and ironies of life head-on is what episodic television does well, and even the shocks and bold character strokes of the first few episodes are more attention-grabbing than overbearing. The show finds even stronger footing when the Fishers cease to be the biggest freaks in town. One of the central storylines of season one revolves around Krause–a literal prodigal son whose late father leaves him half of the family business over the resentful objections of Hall, "the good son"–and his relationship with emotionally fragmented psychiatrist's daughter Rachel Griffiths and her manic-depressive brother Jeremy Sisto. Krause plays the worried boyfriend and the cheerful good guy to perfection, with a hint of smug pride in the way he touches lives. Hall, meanwhile, struggles with his homosexuality and his Catholicism, progressing over the course of 13 episodes from being in a committed, closeted relationship to being single, more open about his sexuality, and increasingly inclined to pursue porn and prostitutes. Meanwhile, Ambrose deals with her attraction to a high-school bad boy, Conroy grapples with her lack of control over her children's lives, and the brothers develop a richer friendship as they fight to keep their funeral home open and independent in the face of pressure from a national chain. Six Feet Under overplays the tension of the characters' individual plotlines as the season nears its end, and occasionally loses sight of the death-as-catalyst concept that drives the show at its best. But a more even-tempered final installment restores focus, and Six Feet Under goes out as it went in: with one of its distinctive fades to white, and a powerful sense of how the dead continue to affect the people they leave behind, helping them to understand life by confronting them with the alternative.