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HBO series has one foot in the grave

Times Staff Writer

It’s mourning time at HBO. “Six Feet Under,” the Emmy-winning series about the dysfunctional family behind a fictional Pasadena funeral home, is going the way of all flesh.

To the dismay of network executives -- who just said farewell to the sitcom “Sex and the City” in February and are facing a 2006 fade-out for the mob drama “The Sopranos” -- “Six Feet” creator and executive producer Alan Ball has decided to end the show after the fifth season, which starts production next week, HBO officials said Friday. The final 12 episodes will likely air starting in mid-2005, although scheduling is still in flux. A total of 63 episodes will have been produced since the June 2001 premiere; the fourth season finale aired Sept. 12.

“Working on ‘Six Feet Under’ has been enormously fulfilling creatively, but if the show is about anything, it’s about the fact that everything comes to an end,” Ball, who also wrote the Oscar-winning film “American Beauty,” said in a statement. “I will miss working with such enormously talented writers, cast, staff and crew, and I’ll always be grateful to HBO for allowing and encouraging us to tell the story we set out to tell in a challenging and uncompromising way.”

Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment, said in an interview that Ball began floating the idea of ending the series last season. “I think Alan felt he had told the story he wanted to tell,” she said. “We’re a network entirely dependent on our creators, and we take our cue from them.... I wish Alan had decided he wanted to do more, but I understand.”

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The imminent demise of “Six Feet Under” gives HBO plenty of reason to lament. For much of its 32-year history, the Time Warner-owned pay-cable network was largely known for running theatrical movies, boxing matches and comedy specials. “Six Feet Under” has played a key role in the network’s wildly successful push, starting in the late ‘90s, to develop and produce original series that stem from the often highly idiosyncratic visions of their creators, attracting large and devoted followings and piling up awards along the way.

The darkly comic “Six Feet Under,” along with the racy “Sex and the City” and the violent, psychologically complex “Sopranos,” has helped HBO sign up new subscribers and maintain old ones, although the network’s growth has lately stalled, at about 27 million subscribers. The programs have also posed an enormous competitive threat to the broadcast networks, luring viewers away on Sunday nights, when HBO premieres its series lineups, and helping to give the subscription-only network an enormous competitive edge at Emmy time. “Six Feet Under” has won seven Emmys and been nominated 39 times; by comparison, CBS’ No. 1 drama, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which debuted in October 2000 and has aired 98 episodes so far, has won two Emmys out of 20 nominations.

With “Sex” gone and “Six Feet” leaving, and the Sopranos’ final season looming, the HBO lineup is weakened at the very time when broadcasters may be starting to reverse the tide. New HBO series such as “Carnivale” and the gritty western “Deadwood” have not generated the kind of buzz the network has grown used to, while two new ABC dramas, the soap “Desperate Housewives” and the desert-island thriller “Lost,” have become huge hits this fall. And F/X and premium cable rival Showtime are producing their own buzz-generating shows such as “Nip/Tuck” and “Huff.”

Strauss described “Six Feet,” “Sopranos” and “Sex” as “flagship shows for us.” But she said the network already has a new generation of original series in the works or already on the air, including the Hollywood comedy “Entourage,” the epic “Rome” and the George Clooney-directed comedy “Unscripted.”

“We have a lot of arrows in the quiver,” Strauss said.


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