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Cutting Itself Off With Edge

By Tom Shales
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page N01

In television, "character assassination" is handled differently than it is in what we might scoffingly call real life. Before the actual assassination often come character denigration, character humiliation and any number of other punishments meted out by authors who've perhaps grown sick of the artificial people they created or at least have developed a burning animosity toward them.

Or they might have based certain of their artificial people on real people they know, and the hatchet jobs they perform are a way of working out hostilities against villains they've come to know along the way.

Mathew St. Patrick, left (here with Freddy Rodriguez and Justina Machado), has become one of the more likable characters on "Six Feet Under." (Doug Hyun)

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Watching "Six Feet Under," the HBO drama about an extended family whose locus is an inherited funeral home, regular viewers may be getting the feeling that executive producer Alan Ball and his writers are using their show to get even with some of the ghastly nasties who've crossed their paths. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is not a guarantee for Viewer Delight.

In fact, it may be quite off-putting, making viewers feel like outsiders and intruders, or just boring them. Ratings for "Six Feet Under" are down by a million viewers from last season and another million from the season before that, and complaints about the show appear to be increasing. Maybe things have gotten out of hand.

The problem is not limited to "Six Feet Under." One might almost say that HBO is stuck with a counterproductive case of the blues. Show after show seems fixated on the morbid, the dreadful, the depressing and the misogynistic. Horrendous clunkers like "Carnivale," which HBO is inexplicably bringing back for a second season, offer very little to reward viewers and virtually nothing to tickle them.

With "Sex and the City" gone and "The Sopranos" on another of its year-long vacations, the HBO schedule of original series is distressingly dour. Such shows as "Deadwood" (for all its raw power), "The Wire" (returning Sept. 19) and the occasional new episode of "Autopsy" (just what it sounds like, and more graphically gory than any of the "CSI" dramas on CBS) can certainly leave a viewer moaning in agony rather than jumping from the couch for joy. Usually joy has nothing to do with it. "Wire" is set on the meanest streets of a drug-infested city; on Aug. 26, in the same vein, HBO will air a special called "Back in the Hood: Gang War II." An alleged comedy series, "Da Ali G Show," involves cruel hoaxes played on unsuspecting saps, plus tasteless jokes that involve such topics as the 9/11 disaster, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism generally.

It's one thing to have an "edge" and another to let the edge slice your head off.

Of course, there are bright spots: TV's wickedest comedy, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (also on hiatus); the newly arrived "Entourage," a semi-satirical safari along the pathways of the overprivileged in Hollywood, and more.

"Six Feet Under" continues to have its moments of smart, scintillating and audacious drama, and though its characters may be turning sour, they still sometimes take gratifying turns down one of life's unlikely detours.

On last Sunday night's show, one of the most likable characters, a gay ex-cop named Keith who's taken a job as a security guard for depraved rock stars, was propositioned by a "straight" male colleague while both were working an event. "What's the matter, don't you think I'm sexy?" the inebriated partner taunted, boasting of a Brobdingnagian endowment.

Here was the kind of vignette from a gray area of the gay experience that isn't commonly depicted in TV or movie fiction. It may even have been a first, and it was full of bristling tension. The would-be seducer wore a conspicuous wedding ring. Keith, who's mostly faithful to his partner back home, said, "I don't treat my men the way you treat your women."

The writers who contribute scripts to "Six Feet Under" roam the human psyche in search of subtleties that a cast of credibly quixotic actors has shown admirable skill at communicating. In its first season, "Six Feet Under" daringly broke new ground (ahem) and teetered teasingly on the brink of surrealism. Though the technique is now fairly common, "Six Feet Under" was one of the first shows to have dead characters pop back to life for visits among the living. Being dead apparently can give a person unique perspective on what it means to be alive and the myriad mistakes people can and do make.

Unfortunately, once we get past the virtuous security guard (played with frequently tested dignity by the quietly compelling Mathew St. Patrick), the characters of "Six Feet Under" are an increasingly whiny lot, some of them annoying and others infuriating. Among the prime offenders is Frances Conroy, who plays Ruth, the nominal matriarch of the Fisher family. The patriarch (Richard Jenkins as Nathaniel) was the first to expire as the show began (each episode opens with a death, usually of someone not related to the Fishers except as a potential customer) and gave the impression of being a good egg but hasn't been seen much lately. The screamingly repressed priss he married may have driven him to an early grave (no, not quite literally, as Mrs. Fisher seldom takes the wheel of a hearse) and may have even discouraged him even from making his genial spectral die-bys.

She has married a fantastically annoying pedant and fussbudget played by gaunt James Cromwell (still best remembered, by some of us anyway, as the friendly farmer in "Babe"), a professor of geology who destroyed six previous marriages with his persnickety pickiness and a perverse desire to be alone and implicitly unmarried whenever the mood strikes him. It struck him last week. He left the house with no prior warning, saying, "I'll be back in a couple of hours."

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