By Terry Kelleher
March 10, 2003 12:00 PM

HBO (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

Death isn’t necessarily the end for characters on this richly textured series about a family-run funeral home in Los Angeles. Still, we just knew Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) would survive that brain operation he underwent in the second-season finale last June. The opening sequence of the third-season premiere (March 2) is a dazzling exploration of the postsurgical possibilities—physical and metaphysical—but in fact creator Alan Ball is only toying with us. It’s almost annoying to find Nate alive and well.

That complaint aside, the early episodes of Season 3 abound in Six Feet Under’s trademark qualities—complexity, humor and humanity. You’ll empathize with Nate’s ambivalence as he struggles to accept the limitations of his new life as husband of sweetly controlling Lisa (Lili Taylor) and father of baby Maya. You’ll laugh as Nate’s mother, Ruth (the extraordinary Frances Conroy), discovers the joys of shoplifting in the company of a brassy new friend (guest star Kathy Bates). Ruth’s second son, David (Michael C. Hall), and his lover, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), keep working on their troubled relationship. “I just want it to be worth it,” David says from the heart. Isn’t that what we all ask of life?

BOTTOM LINE: Good vital signs