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Behind the scenes in a mortuary

'Dearly Departed' a reality version of 'Six Feet Under'
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

Cable channel A&E is developing a primetime series that reimagines “Six Feet Under” as reality TV.

Like the HBO hit series, the tentatively titled “Dearly Departed” chronicles a California-based family operating a mortuary business -- only the A&E version exists in real life. The show is scheduled to bow as early as second-quarter 2004.

The series follows the Wissmillers, a trio of adult sisters who work at a mortuary in Poway, a quiet suburb north of San Diego. Their father also works there but not as the owner of the business; that distinction belongs to a fiance of one of the sisters. Like “Under,” “Departed” follows their personal and professional lives, but with less drama, according to Bob DeBitetto, senior vp original programming at A&E.

“It’s somewhat like ’The Osbournes’ because there’s a tremendous amount of humor,” he said. “But nothing frivolous because these people are working in the shadow of death.”

Like “Osbournes,” which was greenlighted after the titular family was featured on a segment of another MTV series, “MTV Cribs,” “Departed” was inspired by another A&E series. When a segment about a mortuary on a series about unusual occupations called “Take This Job” was well-received by viewers and network executives, A&E dispatched that show’s producer, Hybrid Films, to find an interesting extended family in the funeral business for its own series.

An open audition yielded five finalists, two of whom Hybrid shot for a presentation tape. A&E picked the Wissmillers because they were “utterly compelling,” according to DeBitetto. “They were articulate, edgy -- everything you’d want for a scripted show. They just happened to be real.”

“Departed” also represents a departure for A&E, which had yet to venture into unscripted material outside the realm of documentary series. “We’re looking at a variety of ways to expand the offerings at A&E to find new genres that will appeal to a younger audience,” DeBitetto said.

Still to be determined by A&E will be content guidelines for shooting some of the more gruesome tasks involved in preparing the deceased for burial, including embalming. The network, no stranger to dead bodies as evidenced by its forensic series “Cold Case Files,” will not emphasize the graphic nature of the business.

“I think it will push the envelope somewhat, but it’s not about shock value,” DeBitetto said.