SIX FEET UNDER OUR SKIN

People die every week on HBO'S "Six Feet Under," but even the corpses aren't as brain dead as the family of the next episode's stiff. Poor Harold Mossback had a heart attack in the back of a bus. Even worse, the bus was in Seattle at the time, and Mr. Mossback lived in Los Angeles. How will his family get him home? "We can make arrangements to have him flown back," says David Fisher, one of the two brothers who runs Fisher & Sons, the funeral home at the center of "Six Feet Under." The Mossback children look horrified. "Dad won't fly," says his daughter. Dad won't fly? Now, David once ran a funeral for a porn star who was electrocuted in the bathtub by her cat. He's certainly not going to lose a paying customer just because the deceased allegedly gets airsick. "We can make arrangements to have him shipped via rail or freight," David says smoothly. To which Mr. Mossback's son responds, "Like FedEx?"

They do amazing things with dead bodies on "Six Feet Under." But the biggest feat of all is how HBO, with only 26 million paying subscribers, has turned those corpses into one of the smartest, funniest and deepest shows on television. Last year "Six Feet Under" became the highest-rated program ever to debut on HBO--a bigger first-year hit than "The Sopranos." This year the buzz has only gotten louder. The show won the Golden Globe for best TV drama in January, shocking the "Six Feet Under" crew as well as Hollywood. "I had no idea if this would take or not," says creator Alan Ball. "I didn't know if audiences would think the subject matter was too creepy." On the contrary. Lauren Ambrose, who plays the Fishers' troubled teenage daughter, Claire, tells a wonderful story about attending a concert this summer at Massachusetts's Tanglewood. "The sun was setting, the music was starting and I was looking for my family," says Ambrose. "All of a sudden, I hear, 'There's the girl who stole the foot!' " When people start believing that a teenager might actually steal a foot--which Claire did last season, to get back at a boyfriend--something very strange has happened. "Six Feet Under" has gone from a TV show to a full-blown cultural phenomenon. After all, how many television dramas are hip enough to put out a CD of their moody soundtrack music?

On paper, the success of "Six Feet Under" does seem like a long shot. A drama about a dysfunctional family of undertakers--what could be more depressing? The fact is, while death is certainly the starting point--every episode begins with someone dying--the show is much more about living, albeit in unusual circumstances. Claire drives to school in a puke-green hearse. Uptight David is slowly coming out of the closet. His older brother, Nate, is afraid of committing to his family, the business and his crazy girlfriend, not to mention obsessed with his health. Ruth, the loopy matriarch, responds to her own husband's death by launching into all sorts of liberating experiences, including having an affair with her boss, a Russian florist. And then there are the corpses. Many of them--especially Nathaniel Fisher Sr., who died in the pilot after his hearse was creamed by a bus--come back to life to taunt the Fishers just when they think they've got their mixed-up lives straightened out. "Someone described it as the ultimate soap opera for freaks, which I loved," says Ball, who cleverly places his own screen credit on a tombstone. "It's 'Knots Landing' set in a funeral home."

If "Six Feet Under" were a soap opera, it would be merely addictive. In fact, at its best it can be profoundly moving. Ball, who won a best-screenplay Oscar for "American Beauty," brings the same idiosyncratic voice to his TV show--satirical, philosophical and disturbing, often all at the same time. As messed up as the Fishers can be, they are always striving to find themselves, to figure out their place in a world that can be difficult enough for people who don't spend their days elbow deep in formaldehyde. No TV program has ever focused so squarely on the barest of existential questions while still feeling like popular entertainment. It's Chekhov and Beckett, translated into the best Hollywood style. "Somehow Alan is able to put the darkest, bitterest, most complex things into a meal that people are not afraid of eating," says Rachel Griffiths, who plays Brenda, Nate's off-kilter girlfriend. "There's a whole level of spiritual inquiry that no other TV show has."

And believe it or not, it's screamingly funny. Like the widow this week who happens to be a psychic, which means she talks to her dead husband as she's picking out his casket. "Michael claims to love this one," she tells the Fishers. "In my opinion he's just trying to do what he thinks his mother wants, which is typical, really." For the first several episodes this season, Ruth attends a self-help group that requires her to speak almost exclusively in architectural metaphors--"The door to your house only opens from the inside," she chants--providing the most biting take on guru Marianne Williamson and her ilk you'll ever see. A lot of the humor also comes in those opening scenes, where someone passes away. Some of those stories, like last season's crib death, are heartbreaking. But more often than not, they're hilarious and surprising: death by golf ball, death by dough mixer, death by frying pan administered by a woman who is fed up with her boring husband. "I hate those arbitrary distinctions between comedy and drama," says Ball. "My life seems to have a mixture of both, and I respond to entertainment that has both. Also, I think humor is a necessary tool for survival."

Those opening fatal visions are more than just a cute TV device. They help us literally laugh in the face of death, much as the Fishers have learned to do. And once we're laughing with them, it's only a small step to empathize with them. That may be the biggest accomplishment of "Six Feet Under." Once you've watched the show a few times, you start to see past the grim surroundings and focus on the characters, not as undertakers but as everyday people. Who doesn't have a mother who pushes all their buttons? What kid isn't embarrassed by driving the family car? Doesn't every family have a gay relative these days? The genius of "Six Feet Under" isn't that it's made death cool. It's that we relate to the Fishers--their tortured relationships, their stress of owning a small business, their anguish in the face of death--as if there's nothing unusual about them. Though for her part, Griffiths thinks the Fishers aren't odd at all. "You know, all over America there are little family businesses doing all sorts of weird stuff--packaging condoms, cutting the balls off of meat and sending them to Paris to be turned into some delicacy," she says. "Every little community has mortuaries. They're a lot more common than all those highfalutin lawyers they always make shows about."

Griffiths's undertaker endorsement not-withstanding, "Six Feet Under" is clearly not for everyone. "I know people who just went through losing someone in their lives who don't like watching the show," says Peter Krause, who plays Nate. "I had a child four months ago, and I can't watch the beginning of the episode where there's a crib death." It can work the other way, too. "You're in death every single day, you just become numb to it," says Freddy Rodriguez, who plays Federico, the Fishers' ace mortician. "I had a buddy who passed away right before the second season and I had to slap myself in the head--this is real." In either case, watching this year's shows is certainly more of a challenge for everyone, what with September 11 still so fresh. The cast actually began filming only a week after the tragedies. "In America now, there's the sense that death is a character who is in the room," says Griffiths, an Australian actress who was nominated for an Oscar for "Hilary and Jackie." It really seems to focus the idea that life is not a dress rehearsal. The stakes are higher, and the burdens the show carries are bigger."

If anything, the second season feels even more intense than the first. Nate's had a brain abnormality that makes him worry almost obsessively about dying--not a good mind-set when you're dealing with dead people every day. Claire faces some near-death experiences of her own, at the hands of her bad-news boyfriend (the foot recipient). David, who last year made great strides in the coming-out department, can't understand why he's not happier now that he's openly gay. Brenda seems to flip out more than ever--a condition not helped by the return of her even crazier brother, Billy--though she and Nate seriously discuss marriage. Ruth is again busy trying to help everyone, including bailing Nikolai out of some business trouble with some Russian mobsters. And to top it all off, someone accidentally gets pregnant. After a while, you begin to wonder: will any of the Fishers ever find happiness? "They'll have their moments, but I find that happiness is fleeting," says Michael C. Hall, who plays David. "Besides, people who are happy all the time--I don't trust them."

Ball admits that he drew much of these characters from his own cynical self. "I'm like David in that for years I tried to do everything right, as if that would some way redeem me," says Ball, who is openly gay. "And I'm like Nate in that I knocked around and avoided responsibility for a long time. Like Claire, I was very much an after-thought child. I have siblings who are much older than me. I feel like I grew up in a different time, in a different family." But the person who hovers over "Six Feet Under" the most is Ball's sister, Mary Ann. When he was 13, she was driving the car when they got into an accident. He was fine. Mary Ann was killed instantly. "I still look at my life as before and after," says Ball, 44. "All of a sudden I lost the person I was closest to. That's the dilemma for these characters, too. They are so deeply aware of loss, but at the same time, they have to take the risk. You have to love with all your heart, knowing that it's transitory. As Brenda says, the only thing that you can be absolutely sure of is that everything changes."

"Six Feet Under" is also exorcising another one of Ball's demons. Although he's known now primarily for "American Beauty," he actually spent his early career in Hollywood writing--if you can believe it--sitcoms. He was discovered by the producers of "Grace Under Fire" when he was a little-known playwright in New York. "When I was offered the job, I literally had to turn on the TV to watch because I didn't know what 'Grace Under Fire' was," Ball says. He went from there to three miserable years on "Cybill," then on to his own sitcom, "Oh Grow Up," which debuted to lacerating reviews the same week that "American Beauty" came out. " 'American Beauty' was a lifesaver for me," he says. "It's no mistake that it's about a writer who has lost his passion. I had basically become a hack, a factory worker. I had absolutely no emotional connection to my work." Ironically, when Ball turned his "Six Feet Under" pilot script in to HBO, the one comment they had was that the show seemed too pat, too predictable, not "messy" enough. Not surprising, perhaps, from the folks who gave another journeyman writer, David Chase, the freedom to create "The Sopranos." "When you're working in network television, there's a formula. You start writing to deliver what they want," he says. "I realized I don't have to explain everything. I don't have to spoon-feed the audience. It's OK for things to be a little weird and upsetting."

He's obviously doing something right. In addition to the more than 5 million people who tune in to "Six Feet Under" every Sunday, Ball has also won raves from a higher authority--funeral directors. It's not just that the show seems to really care about mortuary science, down to the bottles of Feature Builder and Permafix we see in the Fisher & Sons' prep room. "Six Feet Under" is one of the few workplace shows that bother to get the work details right. "Almost every episode I say, 'Well that's happened'," says John D. Fisher, who runs a funeral home in Logansport, Ind. For instance, in the episode with the crib death, the overwrought parents tell Nate and David they have no idea why they're there. "The guy on the show said, 'You're here to make funeral arrangements.' And the young couple says, 'What are funeral arrangements?' That's happened to me," Fisher says. By the way, John D. Fisher is in no way connected to "Six Feet Under," even though he happens to have the same last name as the TV undertakers. Of course that hasn't stopped people from writing to request pens and notepads with his business logo. "They say they're fans of the show and they want it for their desks," Fisher says.

All of this attention being lavished on "Six Feet Under" is bound to open another front in the war between HBO and the networks. Last year, when "The Sopranos" was all the rage, NBC president Bob Wright wrote a memo imploring his staff to figure out how they can compete when HBO gets away with language, nudity and violence that NBC could never air. "Six Feet Under" enjoys other advantages over its noncable rivals. Each episode costs more than $2 million, about 40 percent more than the average network drama. HBO also produces only 13 episodes of "Six Feet Under" a year, versus the marathon 22-episode season at the networks. But even if the playing field were level, would NBC have come anywhere near this show? In fact, Ball's agents originally wanted to send his pilot script there. He said no. "I knew with the networks it would be, 'Do they really have to be undertakers? Can't they be veterinarians? Can't they come together for a common goal and help each other at the end?' " says Ball. Besides, HBO did something almost unprecedented with "Six Feet Under"--it renewed the show for the second season before it had even aired the pilot. "I think that's something people were astonished at," says Chris Albrecht, HBO's president of original programming. "But we believed in the quality of what we were seeing and the vision of the people who were executing it."

Now that "Six Feet Under" has become one of HBO's signature shows, how long will it last? Ball has signed on for a third year, but he's eager to get back to writing movies, including a script he's working on for Tom Hanks about a '60s policeman. Is it possible that one of the Fishers--or their extended family--might some day meet their maker? "Anybody can die. It can happen at any moment. This is a show that's about that," says Ball. But he's not looking to close his funeral home any time soon. There are still countless corpses to embalm--after all, dying never goes into recession. "This is the best job I ever had," he says. "I haven't even thought about an ending. I feel there's a lot of life in this show." Not to mention a lot of death.