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DVD Review: Six Feet Under

By Glenn Abel

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Six Feet
Under art Among the many pleasures found on the first DVD release of "Six Feet Under" is a 15-minute celebration of the HBO series' spooky yet elegant opening.

Show creator Alan Ball could be the main title sequence's biggest fan: "I still get chills when I watch it," he says. "It's so cinematic, so ... unlike TV."

"Six Feet Under" itself is about as "unlike TV" as it gets, of course. The series brings home the darkest of subject matters via an unblinking camera and a filmlike attention to detail. But somehow, in two short seasons, the cheerfully macabre "Six Feet" has established itself as Sunday night appointment TV (it returns March 2). Along the way, it has achieved the unimaginable -- making morticians actually seem hip.

HBO Home Video has released "Six Feet Under: The Complete First Season" in a four-disc set that contains 13 episodes (retail $99.98). The running time tops 780 minutes.

The video presentation is worthy of the series' craftsmanship, with eternal blacks and light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel whites. Flesh tones are flawless, whether from the living or dead. Images are full-screen. Audio comes in a fairly sedate Dolby Digital 5.1 that's able to deliver the clarion call of the theme music.

The set's packaging is first-class -- sexy, vaguely creepy and reflective of the series' high standards for art direction. Likewise, the active onscreen menus look great.

Ball provides commentary on the pilot and the season's closing episode, both of which he directed. The talks tend to focus on the specific episode instead of the series, but he delivers a lot of inside information and back-story material. Ball fades in and out when distracted by the episode ("I had to stop and watch"), leading to some awkward silences. Cast members don't have much to say on a rote "behind the scenes" HBO featurette that runs 20 minutes.

"A lot of times I look at 'Six Feet Under' as being paid to go to film school," says Ball, who worked on a few sitcoms before penning the Oscar winner "American Beauty." HBO execs' only note to him while developing "Six Feet" was, "It feels a bit safe. Make it more fucked-up." Ball thought: "Thank you, God."

Ball clearly is in love with his cast, all of whom are "very willing to embrace the darker and quirkier and clumsier aspects of their character." If they weren't, the director says, they would be on the wrong show.

Several of the key players came from New York theater. Ball seems especially in awe of Frances Conroy, the "fearless" actress who plays the matriarch of the series' undertaker family. Her resemblance to Lauren Ambrose, who plays her daughter, was a "freaky" coincidence, Ball says.

Stage veteran Michael C. Hall, who plays David, the gay undertaker, had never acted professionally in front of a camera. (Neither Hall nor Mathew St. Patrick, who plays his cop boyfriend, is gay, Ball says.)

Peter Krause ("Sports Night"), who plays prodigal son Nate, had received little recognition for his acting before "Six Feet" because of his good looks, Ball says. Krause originally read for the part of David but then produced "real chemistry" with Australian actress Rachel Griffiths. Nate's character is "a real tragic hero," the director says, torn between his gift for healing and his own fears of death.

Ball identifies quite a few of the L.A.-area locations used in shooting, mostly in Pasadena and the Valley. The exterior of the series' funeral home looks a bit like the Bates house from "Psycho," he points out.

He says he set the series here because "L.A. is the world capital of denial of death." As for the funeral business, Ball says he's learned "way more than I need to know about what happens when we die."

The show usually requires hand-crafted latex versions of its ill-fated supporting players. "It's always an awkward moment for the actor when they see their dead self," Ball says, deadpan.

The Emmy-winning main title sequence was created by Digital Kitchen of Seattle, which beat out four other visual effects houses for the job. Ball deliberately stayed out of the creative mix, having the effects rivals work only from the pilot and Thomas Newman's evocative theme music.

"We wanted something that you would see week after week and be entertained enough to keep watching," series co-executive producer Alan Poul says. "Something that wouldn't completely reveal itself on first viewing."

The piece was built around two key images -- the hands of a couple separating and a lone tree on a hill. The Digital Kitchen's sous chefs explain their mix of imagery and motion graphics in the DVD featurette "Under the Main Titles."

"Six Feet Under's" awards and nominations to date -- including last year's 23 Emmy noms -- are so numerous that they get a separate section in the extras.

Other DVD extras include a deleted scene from the pilot, a creaky remix of the title song, a set index and fairly detailed bios.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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