The Watcher - Sunday, lovely Sunday

My big fat HBO blowjob

A moment came near the end of the recent season finale of "Six Feet Under" that neatly summed up why that show kicks ass. It was in the middle of Ruth's (Frances Conroy) fly-by-night wedding to a new beau, held in a crappy strip-mall chapel. Teenage Claire (Lauren Ambrose), who's been through hell lately (an ambiguously gay boyfriend, a megalomaniac professor, a missing sister-in-law and finally, an abortion), unceremoniously broke down into sobs on the front row. She was crying the mandatory happy-tears for her mother, but, at the same time, was breaking down under the sheer weight of her so-called life. Such nuances of emotion, virtually unseen on the "Dog Eat Dog" networks these days, bubble up frequently on "Six Feet Under," to the point that it's easy to forget just how compelling this — and actually most — of HBO's original programming can be.

Much has been written about HBO's run of hits in the past few years, from blockbusters like "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" to even the stomach-churning "Oz." The cable channel's batting average becomes even more impressive when you compare it to, say, Showtime, which has produced nothing but drivel such as "Soul Food" or the dreadful "Queer As Folk" (more on that setback to civilization as we know it in a future column, I promise).

The shows on HBO work, on a basic level, because they don't think of themselves as your normal TV filler. HBO shows function more like works of literature.

Sure, "Sex and the City" is no Sister Carrie. But as in a great novel, these series force their characters to evolve, often in painful ways. And the writers aren't afraid to stretch out storylines over the course of a season — or three.

It's also notable that HBO produced the winning films at this year's Cannes (Elephant) and Sundance (American Splendor) festivals. That same commitment to quality is apparent every Sunday night, although I will say I'm no big fan of either "Arliss" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm," both of which have always struck me as pointless. I also tried to get into the season premiere of "The Wire," but the crime show's tangle of lingering subplots made it almost unwatchable.

It's odd that critics have been fast to dismiss "Six Feet Under" and its kin as nothing more than soap operas. Yeah, they're soap operas. Ridiculous stuff goes down on pretty much all these shows. Miranda turns up pregnant. Tony Soprano mourns a horse. Nate gets a brain disease. It's melodrama, all right, but more.

HBO most often works a kind of alchemy not usually found on TV — or even in many films — today, with story arcs that can both hook the audience and still nail the awkward little foibles of life. It's such verisimilitude that makes us, like Claire, want to laugh and cry at the same time.

"Sex and the City" returns June 22 at 9 p.m. on HBO. "The Wire" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

Before you bitch that HBO's fine programming is only available to those bourgie elite who can afford digital cable, remember that past seasons of "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "Oz" are available on DVD.

The new box set DVD of "Sex and the City's" fourth season proves that series might be best experienced after the fact. No longer do you have to wait week-to-week to find out what will happen with Carrie's (Sarah Jessica Parker) wedding plans, or to see if Samantha really is a lesbian.

The fourth season can be a great entry point for any newcomer to the comedy, a time when the show hit a narrative stride it hasn't rivaled since. From the first episode ("The Agony and the 'Ex'tacy") on, that season dealt with the question of soul mates, and found all four leads in complex relationships — as opposed to their more common single-episode flings.

Though the DVDs only offer commentary on a few key shows, the background from executive producer Michael Patrick King underscores the careful planning that makes every episode a mini work of art.


The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.