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HBO, the Overachiever, ‘Under’-Achieves a Bit

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HBO faces a terrible dilemma of its own making.

ABC, CBS and NBC don’t face it. Fox doesn’t face it. UPN and the WB network don’t face it. PBS doesn’t face it. Nor Showtime or anyone else along TV’s wide-flung sprawl of cable.

The predicament, the crucible for HBO?

How to top or even match its own scintillating achievement. The price of being good--way, way above the rest--is high, often unreasonable expectations from viewers. In other words, forget about last week, last month or last season. What have you done for me lately that’s as good or better?

So it is that the channel with the best original programming on TV--home in 2001 to superb “Wit” and “Conspiracy” and, above all, “The Sopranos”--is again faced with living up to its own excellence on Sunday when airing its returning comedy series “Sex and the City” and newest weekly hour of drama, “Six Feet Under.”

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Earning an Emmy nomination last year, the smart, urbanely witty, distinctively brazen, increasingly thoughtful “Sex and the City” is a known quantity that remains unique in prime time, entering its fourth season with back-to-back episodes occupying the former time slot of “The Sopranos,” which just began another of its long hibernations.

As “Sex and the City’s” constituency awaits, Tony Soprano zealots may be standing by with spades to bury “Six Feet Under,” which centers on a family-run funeral home in Los Angeles and, bummer, is no better than a very good network series. That means something on a par with, say, ABC’s “Once and Again,” only with sex. Well, it is cable.

Created by Oscar-winning “American Beauty” writer Alan Ball, “Six Feet Under” is tender and sometimes humorously bent. Yes, some very nice moments in initial installments of its 13-episode commitment from HBO, but nothing shooting you to the moon.

The hyperbole police are banging on the door and demanding clarification.

All right, it’s true that the entertainment alternative to HBO is not a universal brownscape. Good TV is available elsewhere, often in unexpected places.

If you had four hours to blow early Monday morning, for example, you could have launched your Memorial Day by watching the Mystery Channel’s rerun of 1994’s “Prime Suspect 3,” drawn from that unsurpassed British crime series starring Helen Mirren as one of the most original cops ever to tackle homicide on any screen. Made possible by Granada Television, Lynda La Plante’s writing and Mirren’s transcendence had one saluting the Union Jack that morning in addition to Old Glory.

And take reigning Nielsen champion NBC, yes, the network of that screechy, indefensible self-parody, “Weakest Link,” but also home of those Emmy-honored dramas “The West Wing” and “Law & Order.”

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True also, HBO itself is not Zeusian cover to cover, its mortality visible, for example, in such series as “Oz” and especially “Arli$$.” Nor will Dennis Miller’s rants ever be set in stone.

Yet HBO is the only national TV presence in the U.S. that year after year walks a creative high wire, knowing that with greatness comes great risk, while having the luxury of being supported by subscriptions instead of Nielsen-driven commercial sponsors.

If “The Sopranos” was inconsistent and at times scattershot this season, for instance, when it did soar, it left the planet. An episode in which Mafia boss Tony’s shrink, Jennifer Melfi, made an agonizing decision not to tell him about being raped--knowing he would impose a death sentence on her attacker--defined with striking clarity the essential difference in their moral codes. He obeys his violent impulses, she rises above hers. This demarcation of character was stunning.

As was another episode that had a psychiatrist causing Tony’s devoutly Catholic wife, Carmela, to confront head-on, possibly for the first time, the criminality she indirectly endorses to live in riches. Not far behind was an hour of black comedy that found Tony’s nephew and top lieutenant getting lost and becoming chattering Keystone Kops when chasing a Russian thug in a freezing New Jersey forest.

HBO faced the possibility of a brilliance void, too, when that very, very great comedy, “The Larry Sanders Show,” ended its run in 1998. But along came the very, very good “Sex and the City,” followed by “The Sopranos.”

Although “Six Feet Under” doesn’t approach “The Sopranos,” it does well enough on its own terms, exhuming one painful family secret after another, threaded by satirical commercials for such cadaverous products as embalming fluid:

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“For a body that’s firm, yet flexible. For skin that begs to be touched. For the velvety appearance of actual living tissue. . . .”

“Six Feet Under” is initially no comedy, black or otherwise, though, and the living tissue here belongs mostly to the combative Fishers, who irritate and even enrage one another just by their presence. At stake in this milieu of formaldehyde, lab coats and smarmy mortuary doublespeak (“resting vessel” for coffin) is who will run the family funeral home in place of departed patriarch Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins) and resist takeover by a powerful chain.

Written and directed by Ball, the premiere has Nathaniel being broadsided by a bus in an accident that totals his new hearse and him too, although even after death he reappears in ways that haunt his survivors.

His demise trips a lever, and soon his feuding sons, Nate (Peter Krause of “Sports Night”) and David (Michael C. Hall), are raking over still-oozing family wounds in a volatile setting that also includes their fragile mother, Ruth (Frances Conroy), and rebellious 17-year-old sister, Claire (Lauren Ambrose). The irony is that after hanging around death much of their lives, they seem unable to deal with it when it touches them personally.

When we first meet these characters, they’re wilted roses. Just about everyone here is miserable and unfulfilled, including Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), a mysterious woman Nate meets and sleeps with by chance.

“Six Feet Under” and its fine cast (Australian Griffiths earned an Oscar bid as cellist Jacqueline du Pre’s sister in “Hilary and Jackie”) begin promisingly, but there’s a tendency in coming episodes to whisk away messiness just before ending credits. And Ruth Fisher, as the show’s least-believable character, becomes a metaphor for its inconsistencies.

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Shifting abruptly, “Six Feet Under” veers sharply toward outrageous parody in a few weeks when the Fishers lose a client’s body part. Scouting ahead further, Nate and David seem on the verge of laying to rest their differences, a burial that looks to be premature and undesired.

As HBO’s terrible dilemma endures.

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* “Six Feet Under” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO. The network has rated the premiere episode TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children under age 17, with an advisory for coarse language).

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Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.

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