From the Star Telegram is this article about the revival of great shows on Sunday. Alias is mentioned several times. It's not exactly going out on a limb to call Six Feet Under a soap opera for intellectuals. Creator Alan Ball has called the show "Dynasty in a funeral home," and Miguel Arteta, who has directed some episodes, refers to it as a "soap opera on acid." But something has always made it more than that. Six Feet Under, which begins its third season tonight on HBO, has always carried a sucker punch. It's a show that, over and over, flirts with the ordinary, setting you up with an opening half-hour that seems like nothing special only to come up with something in the second half that leaves you slack-jawed with surprise. Examples: "Restoration artist" Federico (Freddy Rodriguez) thinks that his wife and his cousin are having an affair and comes home to catch his cousin in the act -- with a man; severely messed-up massage therapist Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) sabotages her relationship with Nate (Peter Krause) by inviting a passer-by into her house for anonymous sex. This season, though, the sucker punch is missing. The show's acting is still exceptional, but its dramatic momentum is skewed. At first, I thought the show had lost its way, trying too hard to top itself, the way critically acclaimed series so often do. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that the opening of tonight's show is one of the most pretentious, annoying things it's ever done, a sign that Ball and his writers painted themselves into a corner and now have to jump their way out. Some viewers might embrace it, but it will try a lot of people's patience, the way HBO's other marquee shows, The Sopranos and Sex and the City, tested patience earlier this season. And although Six Feet Under gathers momentum -- the fourth episode is a gut-wrenching knockout -- it's yet another sign that HBO is looking vulnerable, especially on the Sunday nights that have been its gold mine during the past few years. Six Feet Under, along with The Sopranos and Sex and the City, gave HBO an image of being the place to be on Sunday nights. But each show takes up only an hour (or in Sex's case, a half-hour) of program time, and broadcast networks are not only taking on HBO in the 8 p.m. time slot these days, they're taking advantage by putting much of their best programming on Sundays. This was a night that, for most of the '90s, was dominated by TV movies and old theatrical movies in the 8 to 10 p.m. slot; a night to which sitcoms such as Mad About You and 3rd Rock From the Sun were exiled in a failed attempt to find viewers; a night that had the occasional cult show (seaQuest DSV) that had a small loyal audience but otherwise didn't attract much attention. Now ABC has Alias and Dragnet; CBS the venerable 60 Minutes and a string of popular TV movies; NBC a solid lineup with American Dreams, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Boomtown; Fox has strong comedies with The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Malcolm in the Middle. It may be Fox, in fact, instead of HBO, that started the trend toward a better Sunday night, when it moved The X-Files from Fridays to Sundays in October 1996. Some observers thought it wouldn't work, but the Sunday move turned the show into Monday-morning conversation fodder, giving fans a way to begin their workweek. "[Sunday] had been a graveyard for a few years," says Jonathan Prince, co-producer of American Dreams. "Everybody stayed away because CBS owned the night and they owned the night largely based on 60 Minutes. . . . I think Fox, really wisely, said, 'OK, we'll go with people who don't watch 60 Minutes and put the smartest sitcom, The Simpsons, on the air. And if you watched those first three or four years of The X-Files, without a doubt it was the best one-hour television on the air. So Fox suddenly plowed ahead with what was then really innovative television." The next step in the evolution of Sunday-night programming came in January 1999, when The Sopranos debuted on HBO. The crime saga lifted the pay-cable network to a new level of respect among viewers and critics and gave HBO's Sunday night a focal point in the 8 p.m. time slot, which has since become home to such strong offerings as Sex and the City (which aired on Saturdays during its 1998 debut season), Six Feet Under and the miniseries Band of Brothers. "The HBO programming changed everybody's concept of what Sunday night used to be," Prince says. "Sunday night used to be, watch it with the family, the kids watch the first half of it, they go to sleep, and you watch something else. HBO said, the hell with that, we've got an upscale 18-to-49 audience that's sitting at home waiting to watch something other than the cartoons and comedies on Fox or family programming. "They went right to the heart of it," Prince continues. "Look at the programming, not just Sex and the City, but The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Oz. That's pretty hard-core programming for Sunday night." But after four years of dominance, HBO is starting to look vulnerable here. The overrated, overviolent, overeverything Oz recently aired its series finale, and The Sopranos and Sex and the City are reportedly headed toward their final seasons. Six Feet Under, which is beginning its third season, is lapsing into the familiar: Big brother Nate (Peter Krause) underwent brain surgery last season in a plotline that recalled Anthony Edwards' swan song on ER; gay lovers David and Keith (Michael C. Hall and Mathew St. Patrick) are in couples counseling, a device used frequently on Ally McBeal and sent up this season on Everybody Loves Raymond and My Wife and Kids. Often, Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball -- who was unavailable for an interview -- uses stuff like this to satirize network TV, but in these cases, both the plotlines simply seem to trail off. The dialogue and acting are still a notch or two above most commercial television, but the situations don't explode the way they used to. On the other hand, Ball and his writers have come up with strong story lines involving surly teen-ager Claire (Lauren Ambrose) and an art teacher, and repressed-but-loosening-up mom Ruth (Frances Conroy), who has new problems with her free-spirited sister (Patricia Clarkson). And the deaths that open each episode come with new twists and continue to give the show emotional weight, especially in the fourth episode, which centers on a pair of longtime gay lovers and Puccini's opera Turandot. Despite Six Feet Under's flaws, I still think of it as the best show on television, but it's getting a lot of competition, especially on Sunday night. Three other Sunday shows -- Alias, American Dreams and Boomtown -- are likely to find a place on my season-end 10-best list. Each has attempted to advance TV's storytelling style -- Alias with its long-running, convoluted spy plots (which creator J.J. Abrams retooled beautifully in a post-Super Bowl episode); American Dreams by using American Bandstand as a focal point for a family drama about '60s social issues; Boomtown with its multiple-points-of-view, jigsaw-puzzle plots about Los Angeles cops, paramedics, lawyers and reporters. If this illustrates how TV programming has become an elaborate chess game, most producers say that they're only pawns in it. In their search for ratings, programmers try to decide what fits where, and right now many of the best shows seem to fit on Sunday night. "It does seem sort of the night for appointment television," says producer Walon Green, whose updated Dragnet is a recent addition to ABC's Sunday schedule. "Viewers who like intelligent programming will look at 60 Minutes . . . and then once you watch that, you'll probably hang in and see what else is on." Green cites Sunday's longtime identification as a family night, because NBC aired Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color and other series with "Disney" in the title throughout most of the '60s and '70s (Disney-owned ABC now uses a similar strategy, having aired Wonderful World of Disney at 6 p.m. Sunday since 1997). In the '80s and the '90s, NBC flailed away with inconsistent programming during that night, finally finding an anchor with Dateline NBC in the late '90s. That began to change last season, when NBC added Law & Order: Criminal Intent and the shorter-lived UC: Undercover in the 8 and 9 o'clock slots. The Law & Order brand -- and star Vincent D'Onofrio, giving the most fascinatingly mannered and eccentric performance on TV -- helped NBC compete against the likes of The Sopranos and Alias. "I think part of it, at least in NBC's point of view, is that they wanted more of a presence on that night," says Graham Yost, one the producers of Boomtown, which follows Criminal Intent. "They got a little bit of a toehold last year with Law & Order: C.I., and they felt that they could build something to lead into it and build something to come out of it." Although tonight's offerings will also include ABC's much-maligned reality series I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, Sunday has been home this season mainly to scripted shows, with reality programming filling weeknight slots. "There might be a psychology to that," Yost says. "People getting ready for the week, or quieting down after the weekend, are ready to follow some stories." And on Monday morning, they're ready to talk about them. Fans of The Simpsons, Alias and The Sopranos often start their week dissecting the shows, quoting their favorite lines and chatting about scenes and developments they did or didn't like. The premiere of Six Feet Under -- especially its first 15 minutes -- will provide plenty of fuel for morning-after conversation. It might even tempt some fans to give up on the show. That would be a mistake; the coming episodes offer multiple pleasures. But even if fans do give up, there are plenty of other places to turn on Sunday night.