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Television

A Date With Death

On HBO, a Comfortably Formulaic Sex and an Oddly Compelling Six

By Adele Marley | Posted 5/30/2001

Sex and the City and Six Feet Under

In its fourth season, the sexually frank, lighthearted paean to single life that is HBO's Sex and the City isn't quite the jaw-dropping spectacle it once was. The setup remains the same: Four unattached women indiscreetly chatting about, say, anal sex at some impossibly swank and trendy Manhattan eatery; fortysomething actress Kim Cattrall, playing nympho PR executive Samantha Jones (probably the phoniest character on television, but the one who gets all of Sex's best lines), prancing around nude in practically every episode; sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw (based on the New York Observer's Candace Bushnell and played by the congenial Sarah Jessica Parker) extolling the virtues of (i.e. shamelessly plugging) strappy Manolo Blahniks every chance she gets. But these once eyebrow-raising scenarios are pretty much old news.

Still, as long as you're unattached and dealing with all the bullshit that goes with the single lifestyle (and, apparently, a lot of us are: According to recent Census statistics, more than 25 percent of U.S. households consist of folks who live by themselves), the show is still comfortingly relevant, if not all that fresh anymore. Carrie's one-episode squeeze from last season--a comic-book geek still living at home who pinned the blame on her for the stash of weed his mom found in her living room? Been there. Carrie patiently listening to her gal pals cry into their cosmopolitans about how all their other friends are married now, and that they're the only bachelorettes left in town? Done that (except my friends don't cry, and aren't into martinis).

And, yeah, most of the goings-on in Sex and the City are generally implausible: Everyone has loads of cash at their disposal and occupies choice Manhattan real estate. Clotheshorse Carrie sports pricey couture, apparently procured on a columnist's unspectacular salary. The gals also never experience any of the negative consequences of promiscuous sex--and, on a related note, they all get laid constantly, with many more partners and more frequency than probably anyone else you've ever met. But so what? Would anyone want to watch a show called Dating Dilemmas and the City? And what if Carrie, Samantha, conservative art dealer Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and cynical lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) were frumpy, STD-suffering serial monogamists dressed in Wal-Mart duds, blathering on about their successful relationships while sucking down suds at a suburban-Cleveland T.G.I. Friday's? Would anyone care then?

Season four finds Charlotte still separated from Trey (Kyle MacLachlan), her impotent physician spouse; Carrie reaching her 35th birthday sans her sophisticated, slippery heartthrob Mr. Big (Chris Noth); Samantha scamming on a dishy but ultimately chaste Franciscan priest; and Miranda coming to grips with the fact that all her scathing sarcasm and "toxic bullshit" (as one dissatisfied suitor put it) might result in lifelong solitude. Also, in the season's second episode, look for comedian Margaret Cho in a one-shot supporting role as a gesticulating, boisterously profane fashion-show producer; she pretty much steals every scene she's in. ("This is my boyfriend, Damien. I use the term 'boyfriend' loosely, as Damien is clearly a homosexual," she deadpans while gesturing toward him like Vanna White propping up a consolation prize.)

That episodes can be summarized so easily is a tip-off that Sex and the City is as formulaic as any network sitcom. (For instance, there's that moment in every installment when narrator Carrie explicitly posits the episode's theme--"Are relationships the religion of the '90s?" or "Is there such a thing as relationship karma?" ) But this ultimately works to the show's advantage: Sex never features a story arc that's so suspenseful and imposing that it overwhelms its episodic structure. Despite the occasional pesky plot thread (such as Carrie's ill-fated attachment to Big), each installment is a light, airy confection that's essentially self-contained.

On the other end of the spectrum, HBO's trippy new dramedy series Six Feet Under, masterminded by Oscar-winning American Beauty scribe Alan Ball, is a study in long-form storytelling. Each installment (judging by the first four) is richly textured, drawn-out, and occasionally languorous, to such an extent that the show holds up better as a collective whole than on an episode-by-episode basis. Even HBO's sublime The Sopranos, with its suspenseful story arcs and maddening tendency to let loose plot threads dangle, is more jarringly episodic.

Six Feet Under follows the Fishers, a family of undertakers who own and operate a funeral home in Los Angeles. Within the show's first 10 minutes, family patriarch Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) is offed in a car wreck while maneuvering his hearse through rush-hour traffic. Instantaneously, he's banished to guest-star status, appearing to series regulars in their daydreams à la Concetta Tomei, Sydney's spectre mom on the NBC's Providence. Meanwhile, the rest of the Fisher clan--including jittery mother Ruth (Frances Conroy), studly slacker and prodigal son Nate (Sports Night's Peter Krause), his uptight, closeted brother, David (Michael Hall), and their moody, crystal-meth-addled teenage sister, Claire (Lauren Ambrose)--have to deal with the irony of and all the complications regarding the family business resulting from Nathaniel Sr.'s death.

The show's surreal, unwavering focus on mortality--the topic is treated with candor, not the awkward, squeamish self-consciousness you'd expect--is unprecedented. Occasionally, a glimpse of a waxy corpse being stitched up slips into view while characters are chatting; a seasoned mortician in the family's employ (Freddy Rodriguez) explains to morgue newbie Nate that one stiff's stiffy (shown graphically) is something that industry insiders call "angel lust"; and in the series pilot, director Ball precedes each act with hyper-stylized vignettes that parody commercial advertising, where hearses and embalming fluid are peddled as slickly as if they were consumer goods (which, I suppose, they are). As if this weren't enough, every episode opens with the splashy demise of someone who will soon find herself the beneficiary of the Fisher family's services, usually as a result of a homicide or a freak accident. Avid readers of obituary sections (what my mother refers to as "the Irish sports page") know that most people die from cancer or heart disease, but those aren't the most telegenic of exits. Despite its slow pulse (hopefully, future installments will be more briskly paced), Six Feet Under is an odd, novel series with a good cast. It's definitely worth a peek under the sheet.

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