Six Feet Under Returns June 13th for a Fourth Season on HBO
(Portions of this article appeared in Crapshoot
in June of 2003 in a somewhat different form.)
All the critics hailed the Third Season of Six Feet Under
"It was brilliant," they said --- sure it was, as brilliant as a slug trail shining in the moonlight.
The critics got there too late. They didn't recognize the genius and the magic of the first season and by the time the third season began, the producers had lost the handle and started playing every tired old TV trick they could think of to get it back. At which point the critics finally began to praise the series, perhaps because it had descended to the type of TV they knew -- manipulative formulaic games. The quality level of the third season fell like an angel's turd off the top of the Bank of America building.
Until the last episode of the third season -- when it pulled a Lazarus, sat up from its chalk outline and said, "Huh? What? Where have I been? Well, I'm back now."
Let's go back to the first season when the critics couldn't deal with an easily-paced coming-together of characters and situations. The series took a few weeks to get rolling. But, apparently, the critics didn't understand that this one was just building itself up at its own pace, and couldn't wait, so they decided it was crap, although the first episode featuring Prodigal Son Nate (Peter Krause) banging the woman he'd just met, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) in the airport restroom as his father (Richard Jenkins) was simultaneously being killed in a car crash on the way to pick him up surely should have been an indication that something other than usual was up.
The critics lumped the Sopranos and Six Feet Under together for a lot of reasons -- both HBO, both Sunday night, both dramas involving families and their outsiderish sources of income, both extraordinary high water marks in television -- but aesthetically, they were always opposites.
With the Sopranos, we knew every step of the way that we were in the hands of a master storyteller using perfectly cast, skilled, experienced actors. Week after week, even with one of the principle actors (Nancy Marchand) dying of cancer, they spun the story and it gripped and held. And we waited for it on Sunday night.
Six Feet Under did something completely opposite, and the opposite of brilliant may also be brilliant, but in another way. Obviously the cast and crew and all concerned were equally skilled -- but in the first year and most of the second, we were often able to feel as if there were no story teller at all, that we were actually watching lives unfold, and that each next bit of reality was still hatching in the cosmic aether, to be stimulated into reality by the momentary dynamics of the event in progress. In other words, the stuff on the screen was just happening.
And that was an amazing thing to achieve. Hard enough for anyone to script, but even more impossible to realize on a set with 10 or 20 techs moving lights and mikes and cables; actors working under blazing lights, and, for example, playing Nate and Brenda as lovers in bed getting after it in intimate and salacious ways despite doing retakes, each time rising above the presence of a macro lens poking in under Rachel Griffiths' left breast. Or to feel that way as actors play mourners responding to seeing a casket and feeling a loss; or son David (Michael C Hall) coming out and coming in to his love life with Keith (Matthew ST Patrick), a black LA cop, and theirs being the most wholesome relationship going on.
Through it all, there was a continuing tension between the characters' daily physical and emotional involvement with death and their total inability to understand what the fact that we all die means in terms of how we might live our lives. Not "denial." Just a failure to appreciate the meaning of the presence of death, even though the recently dead appeared throughout each show, displaying grim existential humor, discussing intimate matters with the living who never seemed to address such subjects in their own lives. And when the newly-dead cadaver being prepared in the basement wasn't talking to the attendant, the father's ghost was chatting up family members from time to time. That was there for all of the first year and well into the second year, that continual presence of death, but in the third season, somehow it got lost.
Somewhere in the second season, this unheard-of act of magic began to slip away. And the people - producers, writers -- who had been bringing forth this idiosyncratically magical wandering through the lives of people who were involved one way or another in the undertaking business started to notice something was missing, and they did the wrong thing. They tried to grab it, hold it more tightly, mold it, hang onto it ... and the more they did, the more they lost it, the kind of flop sweat where working harder and harder at it only makes it worse. The dead didn't even sit on the opposite embalming table any more to discuss matters of moment with the morticians.
This third season opened to kudos and hurrahs and high hopes, and while some of
the characters still were interesting, especially the daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose), entering art school and played painfully well in extraordinary performances. But Ms Ambrose, as good as she was, couldn't carry every entire show all by herself, and there were too many episodes where her character was the only living thing in the funeral home.
The character of Ruth the mother (Frances Conroy), devolved from innocence, no longer sweetly naive and newly born into independence through widowhood, to being merely pathetic, desperate and dumb. The Prodigal son and his neurotic hysterically-vegan wife Lisa (Lili Taylor) were given far too many episodes to establish that they were destined to be no more than romantic straw men, a partnership made out of a poor compromise. Finally, Brenda returned, and even though it was way too late -- about four episodes after we all saw that there was no life left in the dynamics, it breathed a bit of life into the little world of Fisher and Sons Funeral Parlor.
But then, in a massive display of desperation, the producers played a thuggishly overt game of manipulative pseudo-suspense -- bringing it all down to second-rate soap-opera.
Rico (Freddy Rodriguez), finally a partner, found his life slipping out of his hands. His wife (Justina Machado), a nurse, got strung out on self-prescribed antidepressants and other drugs stolen from the hospital pharmacy; Claire found out she was with child just bout the same time her boyfriend admitted he had done the deed, or at least, some deed with their mentor; Mother Ruth came onto the larval human who was the company's apprentice; David and Keith broke up again after a phony argument set up with a visit to Keith's parents' home; and finally, last and most loathsome, Nate went nuts after his wife Lisa disappeared on the way to her sister's house and went missing for three weeks. Some people I knew found it gut-wrenching, saying that if one's own wife were missing for all that time, any man would go much crazier than did Nate.
My point of view was somewhat different. I was very clear that if some writers made my own wife disappear for three weeks, I would be infuriated, would seek them out and kill them, painfully, because I couldn't overlook the fact that they had decided "Let's lose Lisa. Let's just manipulate the living crap out of our faithful viewers and keep our plummeting ratings high." Unlike The Sopranos, when the hand of the writer-director-producer appeared, it was not comforting -- it was intrusive.
That's why I had pretty much given up on them, but then, after a bye week to build the ratings, the final episode of season three came on. And the magic was back, at least some of it. The dead walked among the living once again. The living were living their own lives and mirable dictu! Mother Ruth who had been unashamedly enjoying lots of hot sex from a new boyfriend with six former wives to his credit, announced she will marry him, right away. When the children protested, she said what was always been there to be said by anyone in the house -- "Life is too short. I will take my chance at happiness when it comes along."
Finally, someone who lived in that funeral parlor noticed that every one of their cadavers had been a life cut short, whether through violence, accident, or disease. (Perhaps, and if so, it was to their credit, the producers and writers were responding to outrage from cast and/or crew and/or disappointed fans)
Admittedly, my disaffection was the result of the series' decline from a magical excellence which was by all reasoning impossible to achieve -- even though they did it; more impossible to sustain -- and they did that fairly well; and totally impossible to bring back once it's gone, which they managed to do, in a way, just under the wire. Perhaps I was being a spoiled brat to say this magic just didn't happen often enough in the third season, but if so, it was the people who made Six Feet Under who spoiled me.
One more point, to be fair -- the first two seasons, Six Feet Under followed The Sopranos on Sunday night so you had "Wow!" followed by "More Wow!" The third season, it was on its own without the lead-in, without the advantage of following a satisfying drama.
So now we can only hope that in the fourth season, the writers and producers will allow the actors to carry believable stories, without needing to fetch the elements of character and plot from too far away for us to care. Because learning how to live, knowing what to do with one's life while recognizing that death may always be standing in the shadows is the most important thing any of us can do, and every one of us can use all the help, insight, and reflection we can get.
(No, not "now more than ever." It was always there, and the possibility of a sudden end is no more likely today than it was before September 11, 2001, or August 6, 1945 or any other time.)