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New life for 'Six Feet Under'

Plot twists force characters in the HBO drama to delve into emotional issues unlike any seen since the show's debut.

Published June 13, 2004

[Photo: HBO]
Freddy Rodriguez, Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall return to the Fisher family funeral home in tonight’s season premiere of Six Feet Under. Krause, as the troubled Nate, is the focus of the opening episode.

What makes a family?

Is it biology and blood? Or is it a deeper connection - loyalty and emotional bonds that transcend time and circumstance?

Judging by the first four episodes of HBO's family-in-a-funeral-home drama Six Feet Under, the fictional Fisher clan better hope it's more of the former than the latter.

That's because the trademark of this family is a decided lack of connection.

This is a clan that fights for every tender moment, like a bargain hunter grabbing the last item from the sale rack. Conflicted, conflicting and prickly to a fault, they stumble through life like dazed accident victims staggering past one another.

That dynamic continues this season, with "black sheep" son Nate Fisher struggling to cope with the apparent suicide of his wife, Lisa (Lili Taylor). Her disappearance last season slowly unraveled her husband, who had seemed prepared neither to be a husband nor a father to their young daughter.

Nate's discovery that Lisa was dead unleashed an explosion of guilt that washes into this season's debut, an episode that finds him recovering from a bar fight at old flame Brenda's home.

"I'm sick of Nate's (b--s--)," says typically self-involved little sister Claire, stuck with watching Nate's daughter Maya when her brother goes AWOL. "I'm sick of . . . I'm so sick of everything being so f--- awful every time."

Of course, this tirade - which could describe some viewers' reaction to many Six Feet Under episodes - comes before Claire and the rest of the family learn of Lisa's fate.

When they do find out, the show explores raw ground we haven't seen since its debut. Namely, what happens when the funeral home family must practice its profession on one of its own?

In this case, the result is war between Lisa's controlling mother and a hanging-on-by-his-fingernails Nate. Mom wants cremation and storage at the family mausoleum; Nate swears his wife wanted to be buried, sans embalming and coffin, in a field (which, as Nate's practical brother David points out, is against the law).

Nate's resolution magnificently incorporates a long-ago death scene that starts tonight's show and the horror he eventually endures, alone, as the surviving husband.

Delayed by HBO's accommodations to The Sopranos - the premium channel avoids airing its two most popular dramas at the same time - Six Feet Under returns after its own 16-month break with a bounty of new story lines.

David realizes how much he loves his longtime partner, despite Keith's emotionally abusive ways. Claire becomes a full-on Gen Y ingenue as producers takes advantage of actor Lauren Ambrose's growing sensuality, and she begins to fall for a fellow art student (American Beauty's Mena Suvari).

Formerly sex-addicted Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) falls for a surprisingly normal neighbor (It-guy-in-the-making Justin Theroux), insisting they get to know each other for 90 days before they have sex. And funeral home partner Federico finds an extramarital dalliance with a stripper threatens to overwhelm his life.

Best of all, matriarch Ruth Fisher (Golden Globe winner Frances Conroy) has married blithely self-centered geologist George, whom no other Fisher can stand.

Brilliantly underplayed by Oscar-nominated character actor James Cromwell (Babe), George is that step-parent who is maddening in a thousand subtle ways: from bouts of noisy sex with Ruth to a habit of interrupting conversations with his own largely unrelated thoughts.

But the real standout so far, particularly in tonight's episode, is Peter Krause's fearless performance as the heroically tortured Nate.

Never articulating his guilt over Lisa's death (did his obvious discomfort as a husband push her into ending it all?), Nate is climbing out of his skin until fulfilling his dead wife's wishes forces him to face the horror of the situation.

Series creator Alan Ball often has mined the offhanded selfishness of characters for comedy. Tonight, for instance, a man at Lisa's funeral tells Nate, "We've lost three friends in the last month or so. . . . We're not even 40 yet. What's it going to be like when we're 50 or 60?"

Because Six Feet Under is so often about the mundane - family life, married life, life with death - fans savor the little things.

Exhibit A: the show's habit of starting every episode with a different death scene, and the hilariously involved lengths producers go to keep viewers guessing about the victim.

(A death last season started with an actor practicing for an audition and ended with the wife of a convenience store owner killed by a falling chunk of frozen waste from an airplane. Really.)

This season opens with a drug-fueled death in the '70s, the relevance of which we discover toward the episode's end. Other installments will show a person killed by a wave of helium-filled sex dolls and a girl who dies during a prank telephone call.

Through it all, the show's insouciant wit - along with its sterling cast - shines like a flower poking through dark underbrush.

Some may carp about the downbeat vibe of characters constantly on the verge of imploding. But this latest edition of Six Feet Under continues to mine magnificent drama from horrible circumstance, much in the way that death gives new meaning to life.

REVIEW: Six Feet Under returns to new episodes at 9 tonight on HBO. Grade: A. Rating: TV-MA (Mature audiences).

[Last modified June 10, 2004, 13:29:16]

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