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HBO's "Six Feet Under" is wonderfully entertaining in a twisted, Adams Family sort of way.

Death be Not Proud

Death itself might as well be a character In "Six Feet Under." In this new HBO series, death is everywhere.

This is one the commercial networks would never touch. Created by "American Beauty" Oscar-winning scriptwriter Alan Ball, "Six Feet Under" centers its dark drama and sometimes grisly plots on the Fishers, a Los Angeles family who own an independent funeral home. Oh yeah, the Fishers live above the store, so to speak.

If a commercial network tackled such a concept it would be sanitized and commercialized into complete blandness. But on HBO, which answers only to paying viewers, not advertisers, Ball has free rein to let his sense of the macabre — and the sardonic — run wild. And boy, does he ever.

The series opens, for example, with a story line that perfectly sets the tone. It's Christmas Eve in Lala Land and Nathaniel Fisher, the patriarch of the family, is driving home in his brand-new hearse. But between fumbling with a cigarette and talking on his cell phone, he manages to get himself killed when the hearse is broadsided by a city bus.

Now that dad is history, running the business and fending off the funeral conglomerates that want to take it over fall to his widow, Ruth, and his three children. Ruth (Frances Conroy), who has cooked plenty of Sunday dinners while technicians in the basement prepped a mangled body for viewing, isn't all that interested in the business. Her oldest son, Nate (Peter Krause), is home for the funeral but wants nothing to do with the business. That's why he fled the nest and moved to Seattle. The next youngest, David, is the one likely to be found down in the basement working on corpses. And the youngest, 17-year-old Claire (Lauren Ambrose), is trying to come down from a crystal-meth high long enough to cope with daddy's demise.

To keep the plots rolling, Ball throws in a few more complications. Nate picks up Brenda, a woman he meets on the flight home. They get to know each other better when they have sex in an airport broom closet. David, meanwhile, hasn't told his family that he's gay or that his lover is a black cop. And word is all over school that Claire sucked her boyfriend's toes. Revenge is sweet, though, and Claire leaves a foot she stole from the basement in her boyfriend's locker. He freaks. "Stealing a foot is weird," she says, "but living in a house where a foot is available to be stolen is weirder."

Every episode opens with a "guest death" — a hooker, a baker who gets chopped up in a kneading machine, a Latino gang member, whoever. But on "Six Feet Under," the dead don't stay dead — at least not for David and Nate — whether it's their late father, who shows up to offer advice on how to get his own corpse ready for an open casket, or a macho gangbanger who haunts David, encouraging him to be proud of being gay.

Weird, yes?

And wonderfully entertaining, too, in a sort of twisted Adams Family way.

As Nate's Brenda puts it when she gets her first look at the Fisher home and business: "It's a shame Diane Arbus is dead. She could take some great f——ing photographs here."

"Six Feet Under" is unusual — and unusually good —

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