February 6, 2003

Viewer Discresion Advised

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The Christian Right has it wrong. Quelle shock. This time, they’ve established websites which rate TV shows on their level of “family friendliness.” Shows receive a green, yellow, or red rating based on how acceptable their morals are. Their favorites can be found on PAX. I think they’re ignoring the best source of family programming around: HBO. Not convinced? Let’s take a look at three of HBO’s family dramas — all recently released on DVD — and you’ll see what I mean.

The Sopranos

Make your own bad puns on “family,” I’m not doing it for you. This is the show that redefined television drama and single-handedly saved blah blah blah. You’ve heard all the accolades, but it’s easy to forget how deserved they are. The first three seasons should help remind you. The show’s portrait of a Mafia gone to seed modeling itself on its own myth is compelling stuff, but it’s the dead-on etching of modern family dynamics which are truly innovative. Two of the best episodes, “College” and its sequel, “University,” concern the evolution of Tony’s (James Gandolfini) relationship with his daughter Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler) as she comes to terms with her legacy.

Six Feet Under

In the past two years the Fisher family has had to deal with an attempted buy out of the family funeral business, their husband and father’s death, and roughly 30 dead bodies. This pitch black comedy (or is it drama?) from American Beauty writer Alan Ball has just released its uneven premiere season. The slightly rocky beginning is nowhere close to the unadulterated triumph of last year, pin:it has multiple hints of the greatness to come. Prodigal Nate (Peter Krause) and mom Ruth (Frances Conroy) have standout moments of self-reflection but the show belongs to younger brother David (Michael C. Hall). Hall’s painfully ridged David is a revelation of self-loathing emotional stuntedness. He’s also the most loving, loveable character you’re ever likely to meet.


See Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergeson), wealthy lawyer. See Toby drink and drive. See Toby hit and run. See Toby plunged into the unimaginable hell on earth that is Oswald State Maximum Security Penitentiary. See middle class America swear to never break the law. OZ is sort of HBO’s red-headed stepchild. Its stellar first two seasons aired before the network became an Emmy factory. On DVD their brilliance is apparent, not just in their portrayal of civilization’s hidden savagery through the increasingly feral Toby, but in the exploration of the extremes of the human soul. The prisoners range from charming, omnisexual Keller (Chris Meloni) to infuriatingly noble Said (Eammon Walker). No one here gets out with whatever soul they might have intact, and the greatest drama comes from the characters acknowledging this and still reaching out from their boxes of race and class in a (usually vain) attempt to forge their own families. Who said HBO doesn’t advocate family values?

Archived article by Erica Stein