That a second season of Six Feet Under, HBO's mordant mortuary series, should show up in the same week as two new sitcoms on NBC -- both of them heavily promoted between halfpipes and ice-dancing during the Olympics, neither of them ignoble, but neither, either, asking of us an IQ much above room temperature -- is merely coincidental. Still, it is a coincidence that's also instructive. While premium cable wins all those Emmys because it dares to surprise us, network comedies like Watching Ellie and Leap of Faith are so desperate to ingratiate themselves with the feckless yuppie demographic that they seem to be checking their pulse in a panic after every punch line.
At least Julia Louis-Dreyfus is luckier in Watching Ellie than Jason Alexander and Michael Richards, her fellow Seinfeld refugees, turned out to be in the witless sitcoms contrived for their fleeting return to prime time. As Ellie instead of Elaine, she is a thirtyish single the camera stalks for 22 minutes every Tuesday, on the run from a stopped-up toilet ("like a beautiful woman in a canoe," says her Peeping Tom building superintendent, Peter Stormare), on the ricochet from one boyfriend (Steve Carell, who is obnoxious) to another (Darren Boyd, who is English), singing for her supper in an L.A. nightclub (sort of like Jerry doing stand-up). That Julia really can sing we already knew from ABC's ludicrous Geppetto; that we can count on her to do so once a week without Drew Carey is enough to get us through the Wonder Bra and cell-phone jokes.
So, too, is agreeable Sarah Paulson lucky, to be out of Jack & Jill and into almost anything else, even Leap of Faith, which wants to remind us of Sex and the City and Friends but succeeds mainly in making me mourn Joan Cusack. As Faith Wardwell, Paulson is about to marry the postnasal-drippy Bradley White until she shacks up one afternoon with Brad Pitt look-alike Brad Rowe, an actor who has auditioned for one of her ad agency's TV commercials. (Think Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle, plus Calista Flockhart in the car-wash episode of Ally McBeal.) This requires her to rethink all of her categorical imperatives, which means a lot of yakking in bars and restaurants with her affinity group of chums, including Lisa Edelstein, who works with her at the agency, Ken Marino, who writes for Rolling Stone, and Regina King, who's already married. Nobody sings, but there are a couple of pretty funny golf jokes in the second episode.
We've seen these shows before; we will see them again; they must be what Nietzsche meant by "eternal recurrence." And compared with Six Feet Under, which introduced us last summer to a Fisher family of undertaking worrywarts, they taste like aspirin. Superintended by Alan Ball (American Beauty), tag teams of writers and directors not only gave us Rachel Griffiths to think about but also killed off scam artists, gang leaders, and porn stars by swimming pools or municipal buses or cookie-dough mixers, and then raised these ungrateful deadheads up from their gurneys to sing, dance, and soliloquize, as if Evelyn Waugh had gone to bed with Dennis Potter's Singing Detective. All this, plus a missing foot.
So return with us now to Los Angeles where Brenda (Griffiths) is headed for a crack-up even before she hits her mother, the crazy psychiatrist Joanna Cassidy; where Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) can't bring himself to tell Brenda that he has a brain tumor; where David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) advertises in the L.A. Weekly Personals column even though he's still in love with Keith the cop (Michael St. Patrick); where Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) finds out that her loser of a boyfriend has stolen a bit of her family's embalming fluid to spike some lethal joints; and where Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy), the mother of all these other Fishers and the only one who can't seem to see the ghost of her dead husband (Richard Jenkins) playing Chinese checkers, is off to psychobabble seminars that seem compounded equally of Scientology, primal scream, and est; and where guest star Lili Taylor will eat tofu meat loaf and talk to ants. I've seen only the first four new episodes of Six Feet Under, but already it's clear that the series has left Waugh for Samuel Beckett. After which, amazing television, it could go absolutely anywhere.
Finally, Jeremiah, a new post-apocalyptic sci-fi series from the J. Michael Straczynski who gave us five years of Babylon 5, will settle in on Friday nights on Showtime after its Sunday premiere -- starring Luke Perry, who still can't act, and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who has at last recovered from The Cosby Show, as futuristic derring-doodlers. This is so far very, very slow. But I mention it because its premise helps explain what's become of the rest of television. According to the Jeremiah time frame, fifteen years before we meet Luke Perry, an out-of-control virus killed everybody in the whole world who was older than puberty. Thus has an entire universe of discourse been ordained that consists of nothing but the most desirable demographic.
- Elizabeth (February 26 through March 1; 9 to 10 p.m.; History Channel) lets Tudor historian David Starkey opinionize promiscuously about the Virgin Queen, between lavish stills and elegant re-creations, from the beheading of her mother to the plays of Shakespeare.
- Dead in a Heartbeat (March 3; 8 to 10 p.m.; TBS) lets Timothy Busfield go one better than Denzel Washington. Instead of taking a hospital hostage when his son becomes mortally ill, Timothy rigs all of heart surgeon Penelope Ann Miller's pacemakers to explode inside her patients. Only the bomb squad's Judge Reinhold can save Penelope from a career crisis.
- Crossed Over (March 3; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) is based on the true story of Beverly Lowry, played by Diane Keaton, who comes to terms with the hit-and-run death of her troubled son only in consultation with death-row inmate Karla Faye Tucker (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Overcome your natural resistance to this sort of thing. The performances are astonishing.
Sundays, beginning March 3; 9 to 10 p.m.; HBO.
Tuesdays, beginning February 26; 8:30 to 9 p.m.; NBC.
Leap of Faith
Thursdays, beginning February 28; 8:30 to 9 p.m.; NBC.
Premieres Sunday, March 3; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime.