Fields of ham and hype


Six  Feet Under is set in a family of Los Angeles undertakers, but is about cosmetics: those applied to the skin of the dead, and those raked over the cracked existences of the living. The psyches of the characters teeter like an over-sized house of cards in a stiff breeze.

Eldest son Nate gave us a nice wrap-up late on in the first, outstanding episode. "My father's dead. My mother's a whore. My brother wants to kill me and my sister's smoking crack." And himself? "I'm a real f**king mess."

He's speaking to Brenda, a woman he met on a plane, and with whom he was post-coitus in an airport cupboard when he got the call to say his father had been killed. Brenda's cards have yet to be thrown on top yet, but they will pile up high. Both her parents are psychiatrists.

The one man looking most relaxed about all of this is the father, Nate Fisher Snr. He was killed in a car crash three seconds after promising his wife that he would quit smoking, and one second after leaning down to light up a last one. His ghost became a roving Banquo to his grieving family and their secrets. His youngest son David is a closet gay, his daughter a drug user. His wife Ruth had a long affair with a man she met in church, and is distraught that it will have been revealed to her husband in the afterlife.

Six Feet Under is a television series to be gloried in. Its opening episode was pitch perfect. Funny, visceral, poignant, it came out of the blocks like an Olympic sprinter and never flagged. It had a clarity in its exposition that meant that it never felt the need to stop, explain what was going on, wait for you to compute the information and then begin again.

This episode was scripted by Alan Ball, the writer of American Beauty, and the story of dysfunction among the leafy suburbs is similar. So far, though, Six Feet Under shows little of the "plastic bag in the wind" mawkishness that tainted that movie, and plenty of the invention that enervated it. There are flashes of the surreal, such as moments in which we see characters take the course of action they really want to, before it rewinds and they bow to convention. It is also spliced with little fake commercials for funeral director products, perky dancers extolling embalming fluid - "We put the Fun back in Funeral", that sort of thing. If it is the one area in which it may be laying the message on a little thick, it can be forgiven in that they heralded the many more ad breaks in the US schedule.

The absurdities of the funeral industry are wryly observed, and Ball knew he would never get a better opportunity than with sons who had to bury their father.

Nate Jr (Peter Krause) is the one who was supposed to inherit the firm, but who escaped as soon as he could, leaving the responsibility to the resentful, closet gay David (Michael C. Hall). It is David who gets the best line, piqued by Nate's return after a long absence, and his preaching about accepting the blame for his career choice.

"Talk to me when you've had to stuff formaldehyde soaked cotton up your father's ass so he doesn't leak!" he yelled. There really is no comeback to that.

It was suggested to me during the week that far from being turgid, hackneyed, joyless nonsense, that the GM foods conspiracy thriller Fields of Gold was in fact a wonderful, deadpan spoof. And, you know, if you look at it from that angle, it immediately takes on an unusual, but definite sheen of brilliance.

The central characters - a down-at-heel hack and eager young photographer - were mocking the ubiquity of bickering partners in the thriller genre. The rampant and outrageous plot was both a dissection of a conspiracy genre so prevalent in recent years, and a comment on the scare-mongering of the tabloids. The head-scratching inanity with which the dynamic of the newsroom was portrayed is unveiled as high irony. Given that Irish novelist Ronan Bennett and Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, wrote it, surely it couldn't have been any other way.

So, in conclusion, Fields of Gold was parody that dummied the audience better than Damien Duff; a bit of trickery so subtle that the viewer didn't even realise it had occurred. The sort of the thing only the French can appreciate. It suddenly puts Bennett's other work in a different context. Upon revision, the previously turgid Rebel Heart may actually have been a gentle satire on patriotism and manhood during the most turbulent period in Irish history. Still, I wouldn't want to have to watch it again to find out.

Who am I kidding? Fields of Gold was three hours of your television life that you'll never get back. The fiction equivalent of being hooded and driven about a city for what seems like an eternity only to be dumped at the same spot where you began. The brittle spine of the plot involved Anna Friel (Lucia: "the snapper") and Phil Davies (Lodge: "the hack") stumbling across a story in which tests of genetically modified wheat were leading to the death of patients at a rural hospital. The whole thing worked on some sort of Nick Leeson principle of plot development, piling on the stakes rather than admitting things had got badly out of control. Killer doctors, hospital bugs, Labour spin-doctors, government/big business conspiracy, food scares, livestock plagues. All interconnected under one great conspiracy. It made The X-Files look like Prime Time.

Anna Friel's performance was a compendium of "just give me this chance, boss" flouncing, and a display of steely determination you only get from very good-looking cubs working alongside cynical old hands chasing that one last scoop. Phil Davies is a bulldog chewing on a nettle, and with dirty anorak, dodgy lungs and profanities at the ready, he rammed home the clichés like an undertaker with a fist full of soaked cotton.

Given that the newspaper stuff was off the mark, it was too much to expect the science to be any smarter. In fact, it plunged towards irresponsibility, shanghaiing an actual hospital bug, VRSA, and using it as its "plague", announcing that it would lead to Year Zero and that its escape into the general public would lead to "meltdown". All of which was an appalling mistruth about a very real health service problem, and an extraction of cheap thrills from a genuine public concern over GM foods. A script filled with bad writing is one thing. One with bad ethics is another altogether.

If cutting edge: Gigolos had been a documentary about female prostitution it would not have looked anything like it did. There would have been plenty of lingering camera shots, music on a theme of desolation, reflections of streetwalkers in puddles. But it wasn't.

It was a documentary about dumb, working-class men selling themselves to lonely middle-aged women for an evening. So that meant ironic jaunty music, editing that emphasised the comedy and a tone that egged on the rookie hookers to success.

So, we were invited to gawp at Andy, a young Leeds man, desperate for his break in a tough business, but who lacked the requisite smarm. It seems wholly suspicious that his very first client - a 40-year-old divorcee called Dee - should also be kind enough to allow the cameras to follow this collision of indignities, but apparently she did. Things did not go well. Andy, dressed in the gigolo uniform of black shirt and pants, with his gold chain lolling over the undone buttons, chatted to her as if he was meeting his future granny-in-law for the first time. Silences were broken only by the sound of his gigolo dream swooshing down a drain and of the reporter rubbing her hands at the pathos of it all. Cue judicious editing to emphasise pathos.

Cue Andy subsequently ringing his agency to get more work, but only ever reaching the answerphone. Cue him and dog going for lonely walk. Cue three months later, when the answerphone still hadn't returned his calls, and the dream sparkled duller than the light off his gold chain.

Cue Owen. Owen was everything you expected ina gigolo. Cheeks like a hammerhead shark's, hair like an Italian footballer's and the walk of a man who has sex every night. And a big shopping list. "Now," he said in his visit to the sex shop, "Do you have any vibrating balls?" He met with Andy, who needed some advice from an old pro, so to speak. "Have you tried porn?" asked Owen. "Mmmmm," said Andy with alarming interest. The two were quite obviously introduced by the film-makers in the hope of getting dramatic results.

If Andy ever does fulfil his dream of renting himself out to lonely women, I sincerely hope they are charged with pimping.