In 2000, Alan Ball, a TV writer who’d worked on Grace Under Fire and Cybill, hit the jackpot. American Beauty–a satirical melodrama he’d written about the suffering, brutalizing, twisted soul of the suburbs–won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Sam Mendes), and Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), which is not too shabby for a movie that was originally turned down by Chevy Chase. Ball, whose script had already earned him a Golden Globe, took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The 43-year-old Ball found himself turned overnight into a very hot property. In an earlier era, this would have been his cue to line up his feature-directing debut. But in the post-Sopranos age, it was no longer clear that movies had more cultural cachet than TV. So Ball set out to join the ranks of HBO’s creative all-stars, creating Six Feet Under and continuing his exploration of the secretly tortured inmates of the normal American family.
The “ripping the lid off the ‘burbs” genre was not new by the time Ball strapped it to his dissecting table. In fact, the genre was worn to the nub, having produced its masterpiece, Blue Velvet, 13 years earlier. What made American Beauty feel like a different, provocative take–aside from Kevin Spacey’s way with a put-down–was the power of its subtext: that, just as being trapped in the closet could turn a person into a self-hating bully and even a murderer, America’s reluctance to deal openly, honestly, and compassionately with homosexuality was making everyone miserable. Ball continued to tinker with this theme in Six Feet Under, which, like American Beauty, is basically a naturalistic family drama with a few mildly surreal touches.
In his second series, True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, Ball discovered the metaphorical power of the horror genre, as well as a setup that provided great opportunities for that eternal standby of HBO’s original programming, what used to be quaintly referred to as “gratuitous” sex and nudity, violence and gore. Instead of delicately addressing his theme, or alluding to it in code, he blew it sky high, to very gratifying effect.