A Family Drama to Die For: Alan Ball Won an Oscar for 'American Beauty.' His TV Show 'Six Feet Under' Is Pushing Up Doozies

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Television can be torture to watch, but have you ever thought about what it's like for the poor people who write this stuff? Alan Ball's 1999 series, "Oh Grow Up," survived all of 11 episodes on ABC. "One critic said it was the first show that was actually physically painful to watch," Ball says. Before that, he spent three years tending to Cybill Shepherd's ego on "Cybill" and another season trying to make Brett Butler funny on "Grace Under Fire." "The stars basically looked at those shows as PR for their own lives," Ball says. "We'd get notes like, 'I would never do that. That makes me look stupid.' And we're like, 'Did Lucy care about looking stupid?' " Hollywood writers spend years trying to escape from this kind of sitcom hell. Ball, 43, actually succeeded. His 1999 screenplay for "American Beauty" won an Academy Award--a one-way ticket out of TV torture. So you can't help wondering if Ball isn't as nutty as some of his characters. On June 3, he debuts his first post-Oscar project, "Six Feet Under." It is... another television show. A very good television show.

"Six Feet Under" is a funny, warm, offbeat HBO drama made all the more delightful because it's about a family of undertakers--hardly your standard TV clan. Each episode opens with a ghoulishly hilarious death. The Fisher family then tends to the survivors, once it gets over its own crises. In one episode, the Fishers hide the fact that a man who died in a dough mixer is still missing a foot because 16-year-old Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) stole the appendage to get back at a boyfriend who bragged about how she sucked his toes. "In a lot of ways, it's 'Knots Landing' set in a funeral home," says Ball. "Six Feet Under" often feels like a funny version of "American Beauty," with its darkly humorous look at a family trying to figure out how they fit into each other's lives and the world. But there's no escaping the fact that Ball has landed back on the small screen. Why? "If you'd asked me that a year ago, I'd have said because I have 18 months left on my development deal," says Ball. "But I'd be hard pressed to find a motion-picture studio that would give me the kind of freedom to tell a story that HBO does. …