Under and Out

The living end of Six Feet Under.

The bleaker boys

Six Feet Under (HBO; Sundays, 9 p.m.), Alan Ball’s widely adored drama about a funeral home, has often drawn attention to small places that are dark but clean. Ruth Fisher’s munificent pantry is neat, though crammed; the family knows exactly where to find aspirin (and, briefly, Ecstasy). The Fishers keep silk flowers, tissue boxes, and candles on nearly every surface of their cluttered Victorian house, but the crannies are dustless. Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy) likes to clean. Her sons, David (Michael C. Hall) and Nate (Peter Krause), like to floss. And, as advertised in the pilot, even the most troublesome places in the body can and will be drained, cleaned, and sealed.

This is an article of faith on the series. Last season, as Ruth went to scour her boyfriend’s cupboards and line them with contact paper, she expressed it with amusing precision.

Nikolai asked, “Why do I want little cherries in my drawers?”

Ruth answered, “You just do.”

The undoing of repression on Six Feet Under—the facing of facts about sex and death, primarily—has been treated as an old chore addressed with a new procedure: not “expressing” oneself (to Ball, a dread cliché), but just getting in there and really scrubbing. On this logic, vomiting on the showis surprisingly terrible; it’s a harbinger of death—or at least a punishment for characters who overdo drugs other than marijuana. Purging does not end pain on Six Feet Under. Just as Larry David rejected learning and hugs as resolutions on his nouveau comedy Seinfeld, so Alan Ball seems—or seemed—to reject as endings to his nouveau melodrama generic scenes of self-expression, exposure, and the wild admitting of secrets that Freud used to call abreaction.

At the end of last season, however, Ball’s dark-but-clean world was in disrepair. Hygiene problems had set in. The septic system at Fisher & Sons broke down. Dust balls showed up under Claire’s (Lauren Ambrose) bed for the first time. Blood and plasma pooled around the drain on the floor in the embalming room. And Nate’s arteriovenous malformation (AVF) became symptomatic. We left Nate, in fact, on an operating table—about to have his head opened.

On Sunday, when the new season premieres, we rejoin Nate, as we rejoin Ball, who has now messed with the logic of the show. Six Feet Under may have slowed down in acquiring new viewers, but its old fans (and I am still one) will no doubt tune in to see how the formerly reserved Fishers are faring now that they are cracked open.

As must be said—Krause’s ongoing contract, which has been public for some time, spoils this spoiler—Nate lives. And he dies. (“Just tell me: Am I dead, yes or no?” Nate asks his dead father. “Yes. And no. Some places you’re dead. Some places you’re alive. Some places you never even existed.”) The white title card, which on Six Feet Under never lies, does come up in the first episode: Nathaniel Samuel Fisher, Jr./ 1965-2002.

Quickly the truth blurs, though, and we enter a sequence of images straight out of A Christmas Carol: Nate greeting his father, hearing the cries of his now fatherless baby, strolling through his own funeral. Then he’s seemingly mended—and settling into a suffocating life with Lisa (Lili Taylor), his old Seattle naturopath-chef friend, whom he impregnated last season while he was engaged to Brenda, the dashing sex addict.

And with that, the intrigue of family life—formerly the source of the show’s volatility and life—gets entombed. If the first five episodes are a good guide, the third season of Six Feet Under will abandon Fisher family values and take up slack for Queer as Folk (which is on Showtime) by transforming itself from a drama about the traps of death and family into a drama about the release of gay sex and single life. Images of fully naked men, rarely in short supply on the series, now abound; early on, we get a close-up of an erect and pierced penis. Long periods pass in couples counseling with David and his boyfriend, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick). And the show has broadened its representation of out life to include a chorus for gay men; the members of the chorus, many of whom date each other, are new characters on the show.

Ruth has a female friend—Kathy Bates in her old salty-talking, lawless Mama Cass mode—to whom she is physically attracted. Claire has paired with a male friend, who is, as the season opens, presumably gay. And a pair of blustering older male artists, while ostensibly wild womanizers, reveal to Claire the tormented freedoms of their hot buddy-rival relationship. In a drag sideshow, an unhinged camp character (Catherine O’Hara, under miserable direction)—recalling the buzz-kill trio of Tracy, Mitzi, and Amanda from the first two seasons—bursts in, shrilly interrupting the show’s familiar rhythm of whispering and shouting.

Through all this, however, Ball’s crypto-recovery-movement philosophy of self and family—which has always reliably propelled the show’s action without itself being engaging—continues to play itself out in these freer relationships, as when Keith says of passive David, “I always thought that by being gay I’d avoid fucking my mother, but I guess that’s not the case.”

If the Fisher family has become a diaspora, the counterpoint Chenowith family has vanished. The core cast is so rarely together that sparks must be forced to fly though the device of overheard answering-machine messages (this in spite of the nation’s near-universal switch to voicemail) and an oversensitive baby monitor. The ties that tangled up the Fishers and the Chenowiths, internally and then with each other, during the first two seasons have simply come undone. Six Feet Under now works on a free-agent system, and the paradigmatic hero here is the liberated gay man.

And why not? Who would want to nest here, where the one family left is unbearable? Nate’s terrifying marriage and indifferent fatherhood offers nothing at all: The new Fisher family is so cramped and Lisa so humorless, cloying, and compulsive that the Fishers of old now almost seem like free spirits.

In a formerly hushed world of grief and reverence, nothing now is sacred. A bomb has hit. Nate has died, and from his post-op vantage no secrets are hid. Everyone is out, revealed, in therapy or art: Brenda, Ruth, David, all of them. And now that they’ve given in, they have no need to clean obsessively. They’re tracked for gut-spilling: just the cliché the show has attempted all this time to avoid.

In art school, Claire is told that great art “affects your body, your liver, your bowels!”

“It seems kind of obvious,” she replies. Maybe it is. But Lauren Ambrose, like everyone else, is signed on for the entire season.