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TELEVISION REVIEW

Reality show 'Family Plots' is a grave misstep by A&E

The dead who appear on "Family Plots" -- on gurneys, on display at memorial services, in zippered-up body bags -- should be grateful.

For one thing, they'll never stumble across A&E's sorry new undertaking, "Family Plots," which premieres tonight at 9. Dead people don't watch TV, after all, unless our creator has a big postmodern joke in store for us in the afterlife. For another thing, these dearly departed souls probably don't know their sloughed-off human coils are being employed for prime-time entertainment. If the lifeless grandmother with the crushed skull and facial trauma knew she was the centerpiece of tonight's premiere . . . well, I'm betting she'd plotz.

"Family Plots" is a reality show about the Wissmiller family, three sisters and their father, who work at the Poway Bernardo Mortuary in San Diego. It wants to be an unscripted version of HBO's "Six Feet Under," as it blends the feisty Wissmillers' domestic conflicts with the serious business of death. But it turns out to be an irritating trifle that exploits the emotions of mourning relatives and the corpses of their loved ones. Don't make me say it -- OK, "Family Plots" is dead on arrival.

The most annoying elements in the show are the Wissmillers themselves. They bicker tirelessly, often provoked by dad Chuck, a passive-aggressive body remover and funeral assistant. He's a boxing trainer who picks fights with his daughters but cultivates a grim wisdom. "Anytime you're above ground, you're ahead of the game," he says. The brash Shonna is the contentious head mortician and senior funeral director, and she enjoys bossing her employees around a little too obviously. Emily and Melissa are formidable, too, but they are puppies compared to top dog Shonna. As their schedules fill up and the stress level rises, they all become intolerably self-important and shrill.

It's hard to know why the Wissmillers and their co-workers -- including funeral director Dave and owner Rick -- would agree to be filmed for A&E. Maybe they want a little fame; but the show makes their operation look totally unappealing and sloppy, as they arrive late for a graveside service or blow an electrical fuse before a body viewing. When Shonna declares, "Does anyone realize we have a service in 20 minutes?" she becomes adrenalized for a new adventure in high anxiety, but the viewer can't help but identify with the family that's going to be waiting by an open grave. "Family Plots" will probably turn new business away from Poway Bernardo Mortuary, unless there are attention-hungry "Bachelor" rejects with dying relatives living in the greater San Diego area.

As its cameras glimpse and linger on dead bodies and sobbing grievers, "Family Plots" shows reality TV continuing to reach into the extremes of our lives. The genre already films death-defying challenges for our viewing pleasure, as well as joyous engagements and weddings. We can only take heart in the fact that ultimately there is an inevitable boundary, that no reality show, no matter how ambitious or bold, can follow us once we've gone to the great beyond. That particular journey will always remain a mystery to the living.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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