Six Feet Under is the cat's ass. It's well-written, but the dramatic resolutions on Alan Ball's HBO funeral-home opus are a little too clean, a little too let's-everyone-hug gooey. The show's principal device -- having dead people haunt/guide the living cast members -- is theater-camp hokey. Plus, I'm instinctively prejudiced against any series that gives a role to Ed Begley Jr.
That said, the show is better than 95 percent of the junk on TV, and it has true innovative merits. The first is Rachel Griffiths, who plays Brenda Chenowith, the brilliant yet emotionally tortured girlfriend of Nate Fisher. The hardest thing to authenticate on screen is a brain -- usually the solution is to put a pair of glasses on someone like, um, Sandra Bullock -- and yet Griffiths manages to project a frayed intelligence that makes her both human and a bit unnerving. Everyone knows a Brenda. Some of us even broke up with a few.
But Six Feet Under's greatest contribution may be its portrayal of sex. That's not simply because the principal character, David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) is gay, wound tight as a top, and spent much of the first season trying to come out to family and friends. Nor is it because Six Feet Under is on HBO, and therefore can show a bit more T&A than, say, 7th Heaven. (Though it does show a breast or a penis now and again, or a naked stiff, Six Feet Under is actually somewhat restrained with the flesh, especially compared to the theatrics of Sex and the City, or the peepee-a-minute Oz.)
No, what makes Six Feet Under a breakthrough for sex and television is its staunch unwillingness to draw attention to the act itself. After years of watching television repeatedly push the boundaries of sex, sex talk and sexual depiction -- to the point where the show practically bragged how in-your-face they were -- it's pleasing that the sex on Six Feet Under is just matter-of-fact. That's not to say it's repressed, or ignored -- it just exists. Whether it's David's dalliances in clubland, his sister Claire's teenage misadventures (which usually take place in the back of a hearse), or Nate and Brenda's flat-abbed, yogalike lovemaking, the show steadfastly seeks to depict sex as it is -- an act between people, not something used to hype a television series upon, or to give jollies to chubby television critics.
And though the sex portrayed on Six Feet Under is hardly conventional for television -- Ball's greatest barrier-breaker may be giving a sex life to Fisher matriarch Ruth (Frances Cornoy), now widowed in her late fifties -- it's not freighted with the self-conscious, look-how-daring-we-are theatrics that pretty much take the fun out of sex on TV. Sexual breakthroughs on TV have usually been important but pretty boring, to tell the truth, whether it was Ellen, the two guys in bed on thirtysomething, the Big Lesbian Kiss on L.A. Law, or even Dylan getting into Brenda's pants after the prom on Beverly Hills 90210. Producers often are so proud of themselves for taking sexual risks that they fail to make the act interesting at all. Or they go so over the top, it becomes boring, too. Seriously, when was the last time you got excited after seeing Kim Cattrall get some action?
Six Feet Under also refuses to engage the oldest rule of sex in television, which states that for every misbegotten sexual adventure, there must come a big learning moment. You've seen it in everything from Friends to a Very Special Episode of Blossom -- no good boink goes unpunished. Even Sex and the City's characters do some morning-after learning. Six Feet Under, however, doesn't feature much post-coital deliberation. That's not to say there isn't scattered reflection and regret -- by the end of season one, for example, David had sworn off his booze and ecstasy-fueled one-nighter, and sought a return to monogamy -- but there's never been the overarching finger-wag that usually accompanies TV sex. David ultimately realized his quick-pleasure sex life was making him feel empty. He wanted to fix it and find his old boyfriend. And you know, that's how real people usually do it.
There's other stuff -- Claire's teenaged sex life is about as genuine a portrayal as you'll get, full of mistakes and contradictions, fits of insecurity and queasy pleas from unfit boys. The fact that she's having sex -- and the writers don't use it to force some gigantic household meltdown -- is remarkable unto itself. Mom Fisher has slept with two suitors already (and accidentally taken one of David's ecstasy tabs, which had been hidden in an aspirin bottle). Ironically, it's Nate and Brenda who lately seem to be doing it the least, but then again, that's not unusual in couples where the initial attraction was sex. They'll likely get back to it in due time. But at least on Six Feet Under, it won't merit a Very Special Episode.
This article originally appeared on Nerve.com.