A clan of funeral directors buries people and digs up its own family skeletons in this alternately hilarious and disturbing weekly drama created by American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball and broadcast on HBO, home of the similarly grown-up Sex and the City and The Sopranos. Just as the NBC drama Law & Order always starts with a crime, Six Feet Under begins each episode with a death. In the series premiere, we learn that patriarch Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins) owns and operates a suburban Los Angeles funeral home called Fisher and Sons, although the older of his two boys, Nate Jr. (Peter Krause), has long since flown the coop to Seattle (where he works in a food co-op) to stay far away from his family. On the way to pick Nate up from the airport for a holiday visit in a brand-new hearse, Nathaniel dies in a horrific traffic accident -- providing the first of many corpses Fisher and Sons will bury over the course of the show's first season. As the series progresses, this highly repressed family's problems compete for screen time with the grief of their clients, whose deceased loved ones include a yuppie swindler, a Latino gang member, an innocent toddler, and a couple of old ladies.
As for the family itself, it consists of high-strung widow Ruth (Frances Conroy), who began an affair shortly before her husband's death; uptight younger son David (Michael C. Hall), who gave up law school and the chance to be open about his homosexuality in order to please his father and take over the straight-laced family business; kid sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose), whose experiences with sex and drugs overshadow her intelligence and sensitivity; and the easygoing, sometimes flaky Nate, who decides to move home, help with the funeral parlor, and begin a romance with enigmatic massage therapist Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). In addition to Jenkins, who appears frequently as the ghost, or at least the memory, of Nathaniel Fisher, the supporting cast of Six Feet Under includes Freddy Rodriguez as a restorative artist who loves truly gruesome challenges; Garrison Hershberger as the corporate robber-baron who wants to take over Fisher and Sons; Jeremy Sisto as Brenda's bipolar brother and Nate's nemesis; and Ed Begley Jr., Mathew St. Patrick, and Eric Balfour as the romantic interests of various family members. As soon as it began its 13-episode inaugural season on June 3, 2001, Six Feet Under earned a deafeningly-positive critical reaction matched only by its popularity with the viewers who flock to HBO for its edgy, commercial-free, original programming. Although the show was criticized by some for its shallow political correctness, it earned almost universal praise for its mixture of black humor, offbeat soap-opera theatrics, and mournful beauty.