Six Feet Under

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I grew up in suburbia and found the experience to be quite pleasant. I say this because I feel one’s perception of suburbia has an influence on how seriously one takes the universe of HBO’s Six Feet Under.

Much like creator Alan Ball’s equally dark tale of family discord, American Beauty (1999), the saga of the Los Angeles, funeral-home-owning Fishers is ostensibly a drama centered on the deep, dark secrets of the nuclear family. This is not a bad idea. But for Ball, these secrets are always of the outlandish variety, leading to snickering histrionics instead of gripping drama. Be it nymphomania, borderline incest, or kidnapping, the Fisher family and their friends aren’t genuinely or even metaphorically representative of any real suburbia.

As the series enters the death throes of its final season, I can’t help but compare it to Desperate Housewives, a show that has taken Six Feet Under‘s formula to primetime success. Both shows pull back the curtain on suburban living while giving talented actors garish, campy material they might “rise above.” But where Housewives revels in its melodramatic roots, Six Feet Under‘s apparent need to be taken seriously often gets in the way of its fun.

For many Six Feet Under fans, last season saw the show unraveling as one preposterous plot was piled on top of another. Nate (Peter Krause), the beleaguered older brother, started using his newly widowed status to score tail and assuage his guilt over the apparent suicide of the wife he never loved. Claire (Lauren Ambrose), the self-involved artist daughter, embarked on the requisite art-school lesbian affair before taking the logical next step of becoming involved with her brother’s ex-girlfriend’s formerly insane brother. (Yes, it is precisely that type of show.) Mother Ruth (Frances Conroy) discovered her sudden marriage might not have been such a bright idea, since George (James Cromwell) has so alienated his own family that one member sends him shit in the mail. And, lastly, gay brother David (Michael C. Hall) was kidnapped after he picked up a hitchhiker. This last incident, with its crack smoking, armed robbery, and anonymous sex, was a particular sore point for many viewers as an example of the show’s downturn.

But even while the series was clearly riding off the rails last year, I would argue it was also the most entertaining season ever. Since the show’s never been convincing at delving into the family unit, it’s much better played as an absurd guilty pleasure, sort of a highbrow Melrose Place. Unfortunately, Ball seems determined to give his show gravity rather than cheap thrills. In Six Feet Under‘s world, that means characters experience exquisite agony in order to reveal something about the meaning of life. Four years of torturing the Fishers, however, has worn my patience thin. In this season’s premiere, Nate and Brenda’s (Rachel Griffiths) pre-wedding miscarriage didn’t move me. It merely left me angry with writers so eager to throw more kindling onto this unrelenting tragedy bonfire.

Similarly, one can’t help but be aggravated that Ruth, the needy mother who wanted nothing more a tight-knit family, is now completely abandoned by her self-involved children, and left alone to care for her mentally ill husband. As we see in the new season’s premiere, the only company she can find in her house is with Freddy (Frederico Diaz), the lonely business partner shacking up at the Fisher home after his marriage has failed. We’re supposed to empathize with these characters? It’s hard to say whom Ball hates more, his audience or his characters.

Rather than develop the characters, either as individuals or closer to one another, these hardships only make them appear more unsympathetically narcissistic. At this point, the most compelling “characters” are those who die at the beginning of every episode. Once serving as opening metaphors, symbolizing conflicts in a given episode, now these corpses are little more than stand-alone parables of misfortune and life’s indiscriminate cruelty.

All may not be lost though. Amid this final trudge through Ball’s musings on fear and self-loathing in suburbia, there have appeared signs he still has a wild card left. Billy (Jeremy Sisto), Brenda’s psychopathic brother, who once harbored not-so-secret sexual and violent feelings for his sister, looks like he might unravel again. Brotherly stalking? Fratricide? Inbreeding? Come on, Ball. Give us one last bout of messy, life-affirming, soapy camp before it’s time to erect this series’ tombstone.