In the midst of death, we are in life

Television - Andrew Billen on a new American import that has all the makings of a classic

As Jessica Mitford in The American Way of Death and Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One both complained, the euphemistic rituals that accompany death in southern California come at a high price to its credulous consumers. In Channel 4's latest classy American import, Six Feet Under (Mondays, 11.10pm), it takes only as long as episode two for Nate, the prodigal son of the Fisher family's undertaking business, to shriek in horror at the $6,000 mark-up on a superior coffin.

Narrowcast in the US on HBO, Six Feet Under takes it as read that its sophisticated, premium cable-paying audience takes a dim view of funeral directors. They are unlikely to weep too many tears when, to kick start the plot, Nathaniel Fisher Sr, chain-smoking patriarch of Fisher and Sons, bends over to light an illicit cigarette, crashes his hearse into a bus and is killed. When death hits a family of undertakers, a kind of justice has been performed.

Wakes and readings of wills are conventional dramatic openings. Families reunite. Uncomfortable, grief-spurred truths are spoken. The Fishers' take on death is inevitably a little less histrionic. Less expected is that none of them appears to feel much grief for the late Nathaniel. The reasons for this quickly emerge.

Nate has long fled the family for a life selling organic groceries in Seattle. Feeling little for family or funerals, he is much more interested in a woman he has met on a plane, Brenda, a too-clever-by-half masseuse. His brother David's aloofness is more mercenary: he is eager to inherit the firm and, anyway, had scant rapport with his father, from whom he successfully (or so he thinks) concealed his homosexuality. Their sister, Claire, is a typical American teenager whose self-obsession precludes her loving anybody but herself, and who is drugged up when the news breaks, anyway. Their mother Ruth, a dowdy, nagging housewife, has been having an affair with a hairdresser. These people have things to do. As Ruth tells her daughter: "We have to eat, Claire. We didn't die." In the midst of death, we are in life.

Even given the extra minutes allowed to the pilot episode, it was an example of how economic good American television writing is, how effortlessly it can suggest histories and relationships that British dramas don't bother with or fail to make clear. Alan Ball's script found room for game-playing, too: Nathaniel's ghost made Hamlet-like appearances; there were flashbacks to childhood; one sequence showed Sicilian mourners greeting the arrival of a coffin with uncontrollable tears, by way of contrast with the palliative American rituals. Some of the grace notes owed a debt to The Sopranos (Tony Soprano's childhood is also often recalled in flashback sequences). Some, such as the rose motif, recalled Ball's Oscar-winning American Beauty. But in the tactfully dim, formal interiors of the Fisher house, the show's curious symbolism and the originality of some of the performances - especially by Rachel Griffiths as Brenda - Six Feet achieves a style all of its own.

My reservations echo those I had for American Beauty. Just as Claire takes crystal meth to make things "burn a little brighter" and finds herself seeing the family tragedy in Technicolor, Ball, having escaped from the purgatory of writing on Cybill Shepherd's bland sitcom Cybill, habitually turns the contrast knob on his imagination inappropriately high. He cannot resist having flies crawl over an abandoned pizza. He overeggs Brenda's background by giving her psychiatrist parents and a manic-depressive brother. The pilot episode takes place not merely during a bereavement, but over Christmas.

Yet although he imposes a bizarre super-reality on his subjects, his politics are pedestrian. The nuclear family is a source of dysfunction. Capitalism is evil. Ball's two weaknesses, formal and philosophical, colluded in the unfunny commercials for embalming creams and hearses that punctuated the pilot, and his hatred of business fuels the competing sub-plots of next week's episode when a pyramid-sales tycoon dies penniless and when a chain of funeral parlours makes threatening noises about taking over the Fishers' business.

Otherwise, episode two is an improvement on the first. The acting is more consistent: Peter Krause and Michael C Hall as the ostensibly at-odds brothers, Nate and David, synchronise a shared downbeat pattern of speech. The dialogue becomes less flashy and more observant. (When David closes a deal on a coffin, he asks for a "major credit card to get us started".) Frederico, the "body artist" who sews the mangled dead up into simulacra of their living selves, becomes, with the introduction of his wife, less of a comic cut. In a moment of inspired casting, David's former fiancee turns up at the door and looks exactly like his mother.

In fact, the tries-too-hard pilot is the only thing we have to get past before we have something special to look forward to this summer, and beyond that, too: for critics in the States considered the second series, which, to its credit, HBO commissioned even before the first was aired, superior to the first. We are not in the territory of Sopranos superlatives yet, but we are moving into the target zone.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times