- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

''Six Feet Under," one of the most consistently satisfying series on television, returns tomorrow night for a second season on HBO.

Like most prime-time soap operas and let's not kid ourselves, that's exactly what this funeral parlor drama is the show gets off to a slow start. But by the third week, it's as mesmerizingly addictive as ever.

The season premiere picks up where last season's finale left off, with Nate Fisher (Peter Krause), a co-owner of the Fisher & Sons Funeral Home, trying to cope with a newly diagnosed brain defect. The disorder could claim his life at any moment.

Nate keeps the diagnosis a secret from his family, except for the ghost of his dearly departed dad, who drops in on the Fishers from time to time.

Meanwhile, family matriarch Ruth (Frances Conroy) is struggling to deal with the news that son David is homosexual. She absorbs the parental advice book "Now That You Know" and starts spouting off about things such as "valid feelings" and "the foundation of intimacy."

As she tries to understand her son, Ruth confesses to smart-aleck teen daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose) that as a young girl, she had a crush on actress Jane Fonda. "Well, she's single again, so now's your chance," Claire tells mom.

The family gathers for Sunday dinner, where Ruth invites new boyfriend Nikolai, the Russian florist, and Nate brings his girlfriend, cynical masseuse Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). Not since the classic 1970s spoof "Soap" have so many oddballs gathered around a dining room table. The dinner is a train wreck waiting to happen, and it does, with hilarious results.

One of the new season's best episodes is scheduled to air March 17, when Mare Winningham plays a daffy psychic who visits Fisher & Sons to plan her husband's funeral. She seems to talk to herself as she strolls around the parlor's casket showroom, until she explains to David that she is just chatting with her dead husband.

"That must be very interesting for you," David replies drolly.

Poor Ruth, meanwhile, continues her quest for enlightenment by visiting a seminar conducted by a demanding self-help guru played by Alice Krige, the creepy Borg Queen from the "Star Trek" movies and TV shows.

The troubled Claire is also seeking guidance. She turns, naturally, to her school's guidance counselor, who tells her that "no one can solve someone's life."

"So your job is basically pointless," Claire retorts.

In its second season, "Six Feet Under" manages to avoid the "sophmore curse" that plagues so many shows that start off being strong, only to peter out after their inaugural year.

Fortunately for viewers, the Fishers remain as dour and morbid as ever. How could they not be? This is a family that resides in a funeral parlor, after all. They live with death every day and that's what makes them so interesting to watch.


***

WHAT: "Six Feet Under"

WHERE: HBO

WHEN: 9 p.m. tomorrowMAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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