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Six Feet Under airs again – savour it now

Treat in store for you tonight. Especially if you haven't seen every key series in the growing genre of this Golden Age of TV.

In that genre, one subset has been the focus of most of the critical attention. In part that is a result of Brett Martin's book Difficult Men. The book chronicles the great wave of excellent television that has arrived in the past 15 years or so. And the spine of the chronicle is an assertion that the dominant series – The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad – are stories of moral ambiguity involving complicated men, and created by complicated men.

Six Feet Under (HBO Canada, 8 p.m.) doesn't fit easily into that grabby summary of the genre. And yet it is absolutely as strong, complex, demanding and entertaining as those male-dominated series. It's just that it's about a family, with several complicated men and women in the mix.

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It's possible to savour Six Feet Under again, starting now. Episode 1 of Season 1 airs tonight, and every Thursday, HBO Canada will run three episodes back-to-back starting at 8 p.m. (Season 2 will start on Dec. 5 and Season 3 on Jan. 16.) The show first aired in 2001, when The Sopranos was still gripping viewers as the most provocative series of its time.

Created by Alan Ball, the man who wrote the movie American Beauty, the series was heavily promoted with countless glossy magazine ads that showed a gloved hand applying lipstick to the lips of a deathly white face. The slogan was "Your whole life is leading up to this," which told us that the show about death, but death in a sexy way.

Not quite true, as it turned out. Six Feet Under is about the Fisher family, who operate a funeral home in Los Angeles. It's a screwed-up family, of course, but not just because their livelihood is dealing with death, day in and day out. The series opens with the death of the family patriarch, Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins) at Christmas time. There is a disconcerting quality to all of this. It's sunny in L.A., yet it's Christmas, and somebody has just died.

Meanwhile, the Fisher family is gathering for the holidays. We see Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) arrive at the airport and then have sex with a woman he's just met. At the family home/business, Nathaniel's wife, Ruth (Frances Conroy), is musing about her husband: "I'd much rather he bought himself a fancy new hearse than leave me for a younger woman. Or a woman my age, for that matter." The person listening to this is her son David (Michael C. Hall, who went on to star in Dexter), who looks like a very sombre young man. As we learn, he has a secret life.

At the moment, however, he's trying to persuade his sister, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), to behave like an adult for the holidays and not like the drug-addled teenager she appears to be.

There is an odd tone to the series from the start. Watching it today, one is reminded of a telling revelation in the Martin book. Tom Fontana, whose prison series Oz aired on HBO, said he was told by a HBO executive, "Your characters do not have to be likeable. But they do have to be compelling." Here, the Fishers are more than a complicated bunch, barely likeable at first – they've all got major issues and those issues will simmer to the surface over and over again. There's a bouncy, dark wit to everything, but at times there's something sinister about the family tensions.

And there is the treatment of the dead and bereaved at the Fisher funeral home. It's not a matter of wacky comedy, of laughing at death. It's about death causing secrets to be revealed. In one scene, David Fisher is attempting his practiced noises of comfort to an elderly man who is looking at his dead wife in a coffin. The man says, calmly, "if there's any justice in the universe, she's shovelling shit in hell." There is a shock in that, but over the first three episodes the shock value fades and the drama acquires an intricate texture and profound emotional power.

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Then, over the course of its run, it became magnificent –an elegiac drama about family and personal fulfilment, but also about optimism in the face of death.

Also airing tonight

Glee (Fox, Global, 9 p.m.) is back after a brief hiatus. Adam Lambert joins the cast in tonight's episode called "A Katy or a Gaga," so we know it's about Katy Perry and Lady Gaga songs. It had better be campy and fun. We kinda need that. Also, by the way – Friday's the fifth estate (Friday, CBC, 9 p.m.) is devoted entirely to Rob Ford. Exactly what is revealed is unknown. At the time I'm writing this, it's impossible to keep up with developments.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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