`Family Plots' lays to rest any skepticism

A&E series in funeral home is quirky but also alluring


April 19, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Life and death imitate art in Family Plots, a reality TV series premiering tonight on the A&E cable channel.

In much the same fashion as HBO's acclaimed Six Feet Under, which takes a fictional look at life inside a family-run funeral home in Southern California, Family Plots takes viewers backstage at the Poway Bernardo Mortuary, a real family-run funeral home in San Diego. Does television really need another reality series - let alone one featuring cadavers, body bags, leaking bodily fluids, caskets and graves?

The answer is not as obvious as it might seem. The first two episodes, which air back-to-back tonight beginning at 9, are seductive in an easygoing, quirky sort of way. And while nothing about Family Plots possesses the existential artistry with which creator Alan Ball has infused Six Feet Under, it depicts the lives of the Poway Bernardo employees with enough craftsmanship to both amuse and move. This is a series done with skill and thought.

The initial tone is light - so light that the first five minutes of Episode 1 look and feel like the series is exploring what might have happened if the Osbournes had become morticians instead of rock performers. With a soundtrack featuring the same kind of chirpy 1950s sitcom theme music as The Osbournes, we meet the members of the Wissmiller family who do most of the work at Poway Bernardo.

There's dad, Chuck Wissmiller, a former boxer with a lot of attitude and a very short fuse. "Not that he would ever strike anyone - but he might," one of his co-workers says in an attempt to explain Wissmiller.

He works with his three grown daughters - Melissa, Shonna Smith and Emily Vigney. Shonna, the middle sister, has the get up and go. She's the head mortician and senior funeral director who brought her dad and two sisters into the business. A bit of a drama queen, she is not above bossing around her dad, a funeral assistant, body remover and driver.

The dynamic of their relationship is on full display in the opening moments as a family of mourners waits at a cemetery for a body that is late.

"Don't argue with me, Dad, just do what I tell you," Shonna says as she and her father try to wrestle a plastic-covered corpse from the freezer into a hastily prepared casket. "No, not that way. You'll tip the casket over," she snaps as her father almost drops the corpse.

Wissmiller delivers the body in record time, but he carps to the camera about his daughter's high-handed ways throughout the drive. Shonna, meanwhile, is complaining about how busy she is and how Dad needs to shape up. (Both monologues are peppered with expletives, though it's nothing compared to The Osbournes.)

The family flare-up between Shonna and her dad is nothing compared to what happens later in the lunchroom at Poway Bernardo when Emily comments on her father's diabetes. He loses his temper because he feels she has betrayed some sort of family secret, and she blows up over his lack of control. The confrontation ends with Emily throwing a piece of pizza against a wall and storming out.

Emily explains her actions to the camera (reality TV style) in which she alludes to a childhood of emotional abuse because of her father's temper and alcoholism. He's sober now, she says, but his temper is still way too easily triggered.

The series is getting darker at this point, but the family members are starting to feel more like people and less like cartoons.

What both episodes ultimately move to - and what redeems each of them in its own offbeat way - are moments in which family members and other workers at Poway Bernardo are confronted with challenges. Each seems to understand that he is working with bereaved customers, and that it is his responsibility as a funeral home employee to do everything he can to make the rituals connected with death go as smoothly as possible.

As screwy as some of them can be backstage, Shonna and several of the others at Poway Bernardo are capable of an admirable professionalism and grace. At the end of each episode, death and mourning are treated with the respect that they deserve.

The big question is whether viewers will want to watch a show that deals so directly with death. Before the success of Six Feet Under that would have been a much easier question to answer.

Family Plots

When: Tonight at 9

Where: A&E

In brief: Reality TV imitates the art of HBO's Six Feet Under

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