The Watcher - Family plots

After watching the first episodes of "Six Feet Under's" fourth season (airing Sundays, 9 p.m. on HBO), my wife remarked that the funeral home dramedy is even more intense than "The Sopranos."

I know what she means. Fisher & Diaz Funeral Home frequently unearths more universal emotions than HBO's mobster series. Few of us will ever meet any mafiosi, but all of us will encounter morticians in our lives — at the end, if not sooner.

Both shows' 13-part seasons follow similar arcs in their effort to keep conflicts sharp but not repetitious or overly lurid. The early episodes gradually set up new plots and characters like dominoes, while the later episodes knock the dominoes down with gusto.

"Six Feet's" season premiere wrapped up last year's loose ends with the funeral of Nate's (Peter Krause) wife, Lisa, but the follow-up, "In Case of Rapture," starts laying groundwork for the new season. The episode also exhumes the series' dark hilarity. Jokes involving inflatable sex dolls and the surprise intrusion of bodily fluids (and, uh, solids) provide relief from the Fisher family's perpetual problems.

As Nate's grieving process strips gears between anger and denial, Krause demonstrates that he's one of the most subtle, slow-burning actors on television. Lauren Ambrose gives moody daughter Claire a kind of sullen magnetism — and the show's wicked portrait of art school neuroses gives her plenty to be sullen about. Michael C. Hall, as Nate's brother David, may be in a rut, though, relying on a narrow range of sour expressions.

The latest subplots leave us waiting for the other shoes to drop. Is Brenda's doting neighbor (Peter Facinelli) too good to be true? Will Ruth's new husband (James Cromwell) reveal any — or many — skeletons in his closet? Does Claire carry a torch for a lesbian performance artist (Mena Suvari)? Like an unexpectedly profound soap opera, "Six Feet Under" leaves you eager to tune in and find out — and that's quite an achievement for a show that constantly reminds you of your own mortality.