Don't look for Six Feet Under to kill the competition when nominations for the 56th annual Prime-time Emmys are announced in July. The HBO drama, which led last year's Emmy derby with 16 nods, kicks off its fourth season in June — which is outside the Academy's eligibility period for 2004 honors. HBO's been in this situation before: Emmy also declared The Sopranos ineligible when its fourth season was delayed until Sept. 2002.

While waiting two years for another Emmy fix may seem like a fate worse than death, SFU creator Alan Ball doesn't see it that way. "I don't really think about those things that much," he says. "I'm very fortunate in that the show has been so honored, so it becomes less important. It's always nice [to be recognized], but it's not the point... it's not the reason. [Besides], we'll be eligible next year."

In the meantime, Ball is hard at work on the show's new season. Although tight-lipped about specifics, he does hint that new episodes take on a lighter tone following the Sturm und Drang that characterized much of Season 3. To wit, the Oscar-winning scribe (for 1999's American Beauty) has recruited Ellen DeGeneres for a guest stint. "We're having some fun this year," he says. "It's still dark, and it still goes to some very dramatic places, but there's a lot of humor — at least in these first few episodes that we're shooting."

And what about the mystery surrounding the tragic disappearance and death of Nate's wife, Lisa (Lili Taylor)? Will we at least find out how she died? "That gets clarified to a point," Ball says cryptically. "There is a certain level of unknowingness that will be really difficult for Nate to live with. As far as whether it becomes a mystery and whether it takes [the plot] somewhere else, I don't necessarily want to tip that."

This much Ball will reveal: Viewers have not seen the last of Taylor, who's set to reprise her Emmy-nominated role for a handful of episodes. "She is a presence in Nate's consciousness, much the same way his father is," he reveals. "Actual physical death doesn't necessarily mean somebody's not going to be on the show." Amen to that.