With Sex and the City heading into its final season, HBO will soon be down to two big guns--The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Both are critically acclaimed. Only one of the two has earned it. In the States, HBO is a channel. In Canada, HBO is a brand--the mark of quality television, its shows airing on various Canadian outlets around the dial. Or not, in the case of The Sopranos. As US viewers eagerly await the March 7 debut of season five, frustrated BC viewers have been forced to the video stores to pick up season four since CTV can't seem to get its act together and get The Sopranos back on the air. It's worth renting. The brainchild of writer/director/producer David Chase, The Sopranos was a sensation when it first hit HBO on January 10, 1999. Over the course of four seasons, much has changed in mob boss Tony Soprano's world (and the World Trade Centre has disappeared from the opening montage). Throughout, the quality has remained consistent--great writing, great characters, great performances. Not every aspect of the show is equally compelling (I for one was glad to see the therapy sessions come to an end). But The Sopranos has two essential qualities for great TV drama: believability and unpredictability. Unpredictably is tiresome when it simply means that any wacky thing can happen. But in a well-constructed dramatic universe like The Sopranos, it is refreshing to see events develop in ways that reflect the vagaries of life rather than the clichéd conventions of drama. Sorry to miss the funeral Would that Six Feet Under could boast the same. The Emmy-winning series about a family of undertakers (airing here on Showcase) has been held up by critics as another HBO triumph. If you haven't watched it, you should. You'll probably love it. Lord knows all my friends do. I've become a pariah, hounded from dinner parties all over town just because I think Lost in Translation sucked (ask me about it if you have an hour to spare and a good spit guard) and Six Feet Under is lame. Six Feet Under fans are fond of mentioning that Alan Ball, the creative wunderkind behind the series, also wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning film American Beauty. If you consider that a recommendation, well, enjoy the show. I'd call it a warning. Like that tremendously over-rated 1999 film, Six Feet Under has managed to win friends and influence critics far above its station. Ball seems to have a talent for churning out the sort of pedantic drama many critics rush to embrace. Six Feet Under started with a bang. Episode One opened with the abrupt death of Nathaniel Fisher, the patriarch of a family that runs a funeral home. Killed in a hearse, no less. We then meet the family, including free-spirited Nate Jr. (Peter Krause) who had escaped the family orbit, and tight-assed David (Michael C. Hall), the brother who stayed behind to embalm corpses and run funerals for Dad. A monster you can love But if The Sopranos is driven by first-rate writing and characterization, Six Feet Under suffers for their lack. Unlike the tale of the domesticated New Jersey mobster, Ball has created a show that frequently goes for the obvious. His puppets dance to familiar tunes, always aiming for the Big Emotional Catharsis or, worse, the Big Lesson. Typical of the show was the early episode in which David must come to terms with his grief over his father's death. Viewing the smashed hearse leaves him unmoved. David is thoroughly pissed off at Nate, and certainly not fond of his brother's mysterious new girlfriend Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). And yet when Brenda suddenly phones and demands (without explanation) that they go stand on a particular street corner, David immediately does so. Why? Because the script requires it. Brenda, it turns out, has located the exact bus that killed dear old Dad. This provides David his big breakthrough, even though the wrecked hearse did not. Why? Because Brenda the Magic Girlfriend has decreed it so. It's exactly the kind of hackneyed nonsense The Sopranos so deftly avoids. Buying into Six Feet Under means caring about the Fisher family. Tough to do--they're a generally unpleasant bunch. Nate is provided as a nice-guy focus for our attention, but there's not much to him once you get past the easy-on-the-eyes part. The contrast with the Soprano family is telling. Even though Tony is often portrayed as a frightening and truly vicious thug, it is almost impossible not to feel for him. As realized by James Gandolfini, he is undeniably compelling. His wife Carmela (Edie Falco) is just as complex, a roiling mass of guilt, rage, shrewd intelligence, and desperate familial love. The Fishers, who merely plant corpses rather than manufacture them, are a tedious dinner party by comparison. HBO's losing streak Despite the acclaim for Six Feet Under, HBO's critical winning streak recently appears to have come to an end. The Village Voice described the cable network's big new prestige series Carnivale as "a lot of freaks and carnies signifying nothing." Steven Soderburgh and George Clooney have teamed up on a new HBO semi-reality/semi-dramatic political series called K Street. Don't look for it on CTV or any other Canadian channel anytime soon--its popularity appears restricted to the various Washington politicos who show up on camera. HBO series have been an elevating force in American television, raising the bar for other networks and cable channels with their adult themes and unsanitized depictions of modern life. They may not all be gems, but unlike the network purveyors of That 70's Show, HBO at least aims high. CTV ought to get The Sopranos back on the air. While they're at it, they should pick up HBO's excellent cop series The Wire, too. That one isn't even on video. Forced to Watch is a new occasional column at The Tyee about what's good and not on television, and widely published writer Steve Burgess is hogging the control.