Minor spoiler alert: If you don't want to know about anything that happens on this Sunday's broadcast of Sex and the City or Six Feet Under, don't read this.
The reasons for HBO's success with original programming are so numerous, they're almost uncountable. There's oh, let's see, the writing, the casting, the acting, the lack of commercial interruption, the lavish per-episode budgets, and the energy focused on a few great shows instead of many mediocre ones, to name a few factors. Then there's HBO's freedom to employ graphic material. In a defensive-sounding April memo to his colleagues, NBC President Bob Wright asked whether The Sopranos could be a model for the network, especially if it were stripped of its "violence, language and nudity." How much of a creative advantage does HBO's lack of censors and advertising give it over the networks? Are sex and violence what make these HBO shows great?
Well, in a way: That's what HBO's hit dramas are partly about. When it comes to graphic material, HBO brilliantly leverages its marketplace advantage: Because it can use sex, violence, and the like in a way the networks can't (or won't), it's made its premium shows into extended essays on these themes. The networks use graphic material, too, of course, but as a condiment, spicing up otherwise bland fare with breasts, drugs, and gunfire. HBO makes them into whole courses. It's as if someone finally remembered that taboo-laden subjects aren't just potentially offensive: They also make for some of the richest, most riveting topics in all of fiction.
Take this Sunday night's lineup, featuring the season première of Sex and the City and the debut of HBO's new drama, Six Feet Under. The two back-to-back episodes of Sex and the City will feel pretty familiar to anyone who's seen the show before. Carrie moons over and flirts with Mr. Big; Charlotte is daintily squeamish about a sex-related act, but then learns to love it; Samantha is naked a lot and throws herself at a priest; and Miranda worries about being her brainy, plain-spoken self.
In fact, even if you've never seen the show before, these episodes might feel familiar anyway. With its four talky characters, their freakishly funny, tic-laden acquaintances, and its dead-on satire of Manhattan life, Sex and the City can sometimes seem like a more sentimental Seinfeld in heels. The difference is that Seinfeld, as we all know, had no subject matter and no theme, and Sex and the City has beautifully articulated ones. There's sex and relationships, of course, and subtopics like loneliness, aging, the substitution of friends for family members (and spouses), and the possibilities and limits of experimentation. The sex is often played for shocks or laughs, but just as often, it's deployed by the writers in service to theme or character. Even the sexual slapstick—Carrie suffering through a fiery dinner without water in order to evade a lover's request to urinate on him, Charlotte's desperate efforts to arouse Trey, Samantha's over-the-top antics—illustrates real ideas about relationships. The Bob Wright theory is somewhat correct: The sex does make the show, but in the best, least gratuitous way possible. Put the girls in frumpier clothing, give them a curfew, or marry them off, and Sex and the City would be done for.
The question of whether you could tone down Six Feet Under's shocking elements without ruining the show is more of a mixed call. If you haven't heard yet, it's a darkly comic, hourlong series about the squabbling Fisher family, who operate (and even live in) their own funeral home. The pilot struck me as a sort of American Beauty meets Party of Five, but the second episode gets wilder and less predictable, and by the sixth installment I was hooked. The basic theme, of course, is death: Each episode begins with some stranger kicking the bucket, and the rest of the installment is ingeniously written around the preparations for that person's funeral. (Episode 3, titled "The Foot," does this to fantastic effect.) In another masterful stroke, these weekly customer deaths reflect upon a more central one: that of the Fisher father, who is killed during the very first few minutes of the pilot. So the Fishers are both professional and private mourners, and they represent, at different times, every figure and relationship in the grieving process: the dead (the father's ghost frequently banters with his kids), the mourners, the onlookers, and the funeral industry.
All this death stuff is extremely graphic, starting with the opening credits, which portray bodies in various stages of the embalming and grooming process. (It's artier than it sounds.) The death of the week is often violent, and from there, it only gets more vivid. Nate, the eldest Fisher son, is new to the family business, and both character and audience are introduced to the gut-churning process of preparing bodies for burial. We encounter decaying, stitched-together corpses, stray body parts, tubes of blood and embalming fluid, and we hear about leaks and other quirks of dead bodies. (Apparently, "angel lust" is the slang term for posthumous erections. And did you know that cadavers emit breathing-ish noises when air escapes their chest cavities?)
There's plenty of fornication, too. Every major character has an extraordinarily well-developed sex life, from the widowed mother; to Nate, who's got a reckless talent for copulating in inappropriate locations; to middle child David, whose tender bedroom scenes with his boyfriend deserve some kind of alterna-Emmy for Best Depiction of Gay Romance; to Claire, the youngest, whose hilarious sexual misadventures take place in the back of the family's old hearse.
So let's apply the Bob Wright test again: Could you credibly produce a PG-13, advertiser-safe version of Six Feet Under without compromising the show's quality? Some of the explicit sex stuff could probably be toned down—say with Nate and his girlfriend Brenda, who go at it like rabbits. In fact, the show might even benefit from a little chastity. The problem with HBO's liberal use of sex is that it can become a crutch for character development. On both Sex and the City and Six Feet Under, you are who (and how) you screw. This is appropriate on the former show, but excessive on the latter. It's as if the writers, many of whom come from network TV, are so excited to finally write sex lives for their characters that they overdo it.
The graphic stuff about death, however, is indispensable, down to the wound-filler makeup (essential for open-casket wakes) and the naked corpses splayed out on the embalming table. Six Feet Under was originally conceived as a fictionalized response to Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death Revisited, and like the book, the show is powered by disturbing details about the funeral industry and debates about how death should be handled. It's a joy to see characters and dialogue driven by genuinely wrenching questions—does the tidiness of the funeral home soothe mourners or prevent them from reckoning with their losses? Is it ethical to profit from people's grief? Without these, Six Feet Under might feel like just another location-based drama.
Which would horrify its creators no end. In proud HBO tradition (Larry Sanders, Tanner '88), the show is cheekily self-conscious of its non-networkness. The pilot is interspersed with parodies of ads and product placements—in one fake spot, khaki-clad, Gap-style dancers shimmy around with tumblers of fake earth, which reappear in a cemetery scene a few minutes later. These spoofs are funny, but it's striking that the writers of a new drama would take precious minutes away from their pilot to stick it to the networks. Especially given that the show's structure is pretty conventional, and that the writing isn't free of gimmick or heavy-handedness. The constant conflict between the two Fisher brothers feels forced; the writers make one character a renowned child prodigy where a mere smart person would have sufficed; and at least one of the guest stars, a gang leader with a heart of gold, seems to have strolled in from Providence. These are minor offenses, given the general quality of the writing. But in declaring that "It's not TV. It's HBO," the channel has made departure from network tradition its barometer for success and laid down a sneering challenge to the networks.
I don't know what kind of response Bob Wright got to his memo. But here's an offering: One thing the networks should learn from HBO is that stories are often driven by ideas, not just by settings or characters or situations. And while prison life (Oz), crime (The Sopranos), sex (Sex and the City), and death (Six Feet Under) are certainly rich topics, there are still plenty of gentler-but-still-riveting ones to go around.