The mourning has finally broken. Alan Ball is contemplating life after death -- five seasons' worth.
Ball is coping with the final throes of HBO's "Six Feet Under," his black-humor-laced drama about a family-run funeral home that will end its run Sunday. "Six Feet Under" is one of the flagship components -- along with "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- that have made the pay-cable network a critical favorite and powerhouse. The 48-year-old Ball, who scored an Oscar for writing "American Beauty," is very much alive and kicking as he prepares to tackle new projects, including a play, a couple of screenplays and a novel he is adapting for a film he hopes to direct later this year.
For Ball, who says his characters are so real to him they haunt his dreams, fading out "Six Feet Under" is a mixed blessing.
"It's like having seven kids, and they all go off to college at the same time," he said. "This show is very dear to me. . . . It's definitely bittersweet, a growth experience, and not without some pain. But I'm really excited about moving on and doing something different."
The show's signature opening sequences -- the mostly untimely demise of a future client of the Fisher family mortuary -- spotlighted its exploration of how the living deal with the complicated layers of grief. The dramatic odyssey of "Six Feet Under" has been sprinkled with generous doses of sex, violence, surrealism and emotional turmoil.
Ball and the writers did not shy away from pushing the envelope. One installment last season revolving around the brutalization of David, one of the Fisher brothers, provoked such outrage that some fans swore never to watch again. And Ball saved his most shocking twist for this season, killing off a lead figure -- Nate Fisher (Peter Krause), the handsome, conflicted co-director of the funeral home -- with three episodes left in the season.
Fisher collapsed into open-eyed unconsciousness just minutes after cheating on his pregnant wife, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). His subsequent death and the Fishers' grief in burying one of their own have fueled emotional discussions in TV chat rooms and around water coolers.
Addressing the overall theme and meaning of "Six Feet Under," Ball paused.
"What the series is all about is: We die," Ball finally said. "So while we're here, let's live fully. There are lots of things that masquerade as having the key to life -- religion, culture. But ultimately we have to make decisions on our own. And we will make mistakes. And that's okay, because we're human. It's a struggle to find meaning, but that struggle is the meaning."
Much of Ball's inspiration was based on a painful adolescent memory. His sister was killed on her 22nd birthday in a traffic accident while driving the 13-year-old Alan to a piano lesson. Ball recalled the funeral and how his mother reacted as she approached his sister lying in an open casket.
"My mother leaned forward, kissed my sister on the forehead and started to weep," Ball said. "One of the funeral directors gently guided her away from the casket and took her behind a curtain. The implication was that grief is ugly and shouldn't be seen, it's so personal. But we need to know that everyone feels the same way."
A TV veteran, Ball wrote for "Grace Under Fire" and "Cybill." But "Six Feet Under" evolved in ways that surprised even him.
"When I wrote the pilot, I was in an intense state of mind," he recalled. "I had had another show canceled, and I was exhausted. I knew HBO was interested in a show about a funeral home, I was two years into my TV deal, and I didn't want to write another network sitcom. I wanted to exorcise some demons while opening as many doors as possible. Although I had some ideas about what this show should be, it really became an entity of its own."
Killing off Nate was part of that process. In Ball's mind, the character was doomed since the third season when he became afflicted with arteriovenous malformations, a brain disorder.
"Nate was always moving a step closer toward his own mortality. I got a lot of resistance from the other writers, but I always felt that nothing was as organic or as appropriate as Nate dying. And I didn't want to do that in the final episode. I wanted to have the Fishers grieve, to have them go through that loss and come out the other side. Life isn't about happy endings."