Matters of Life and Death

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his Oscar-winning screenplay for 1999's "American Beauty," Alan Ball peeled away the artifices of the American dream and the "picture perfect" family. In his new 13-part HBO series, "Six Feet Under," Ball once again skewers contemporary society and the family structure.

"We live in an alienated time, where we are afraid to look at the darkness in life. There is a great Tom Waits lyric ... 'If I chase away my devils, my angels may leave too,' " offers Ball. "As a culture, we are so conditioned from Day 1 by television, by the movies and by the media to look at this kind of sanitized, plastic version of life as what we should aspire to. I think that's madness."

"Six Feet Under," which premieres Sunday, blends drama, dark comedy and fantasy to tell the story of the Fisher family, which owns and operates the Fisher & Sons Funeral Home in Los Angeles. Richard Jenkins plays the head of the family, Nathaniel Fisher. Frances Conroy plays the skittish, troubled matriarch Ruth. Peter Krause of "Sports Night" is eldest son Nate, a handsome, 35-year-old with a bad case of Peter Pan syndrome, who returns home for Christmas only to find himself thrust into the family business.

Michael C. Hall is David, the stern younger son who works at the funeral home and is trying to keep his homosexuality a secret. Lauren Ambrose is Nate and David's wild young sister Claire, and Rachel Griffiths ("Hilary and Jackie") is Nate's new girlfriend, Brenda, whose family is even more of a mess than the Fishers.

Krause says he feels much more suited doing "Six Feet Under" than he did doing Aaron Sorkin's acclaimed but short-lived ABC dramedy, "Sports Night."

"My interest as an actor leads more in trying to contribute something and change consciousness a bit," says Krause, who worked with Ball on the CBS sitcom "Cybill."

The actor feels a real kinship with Nate and finds it difficult to even talk about the process of playing the part.

"It is so involved," he says. "You get swept up in it. It's an incredibly character-driven show. These people are people that you know. They are not broad strokes. Part of Nate's complexity, which is revealed to the audience through the course of all the episodes, is that this is a person who believes he's happy, things are going well in his life. A lot of that is denial."

Ball, who wrote and directed the first and final episodes, didn't visit mortuaries as part of his research for "Six Feet Under." He felt he didn't need that experience.

"I had been to several funerals in my life, which I sort of felt was enough," he says, though he points out that licensed funeral directors and morticians were hired as technical advisors.

Initially, Ball was going to set the series in some "gray, Northeastern cold place." But he realized that was an obvious choice. So he went with the least obvious place: sunny, bright Los Angeles.

"It is the capital of the denial of death," says Ball. "But people die in Los Angeles just as much as they die anyplace else."

"Of all the professions in Los Angeles, it has to be the most unglamorous one," says Rodrigo Garcia ("Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her"), who directed episodes 6 and 12. The series' other directors include Miguel Arteta, Kathy Bates and Allen Coulter.

"People come here to be rich and famous and reinvent themselves, so it's not a very Hollywood profession," says Garcia.

Garcia had never directed episodic TV but was drawn to the project because of Ball. "I saw the pilot, and it didn't remind me of anything else."

For Garcia, the series is about "connecting and isolation and life and death. It's all the big subjects thrown into a small family drama, with the potential for drama and all the potential for humor that having [a series] in a mortuary lets you. It's mostly how these people in this family deal with their problems in common and not in common."

When Krause is asked to describe the offbeat series, he tells people it is a family show, "which is somewhat misleading. It's not a family show like 'Eight Is Enough' was a family show. But it's a show about a family. It's framed with life and death. We are all framed by our lives and our own inevitable end. That is what gives life meaning."

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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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