The Fisher clan wrapped up their third season on HBO’s Six Feet Under last night with an episode that captured both the highs and lows of this erratic, but enjoyable dark comic soap. After a season opener that promised more than the full season delivered (creator Alan Ball playing wittily metaphysical with Nate Fisher’s near-death brain surgery), this year’s remaining offerings steered too close toward serial melodrama, often at the expense of the show’s trademark caustic humor.
Sunday’s capper, written by Jill Soloway and directed by Ball, had its good moments, both comic and dramatic. Among them:
- the opening death sequence, which neatly played with audience expectations (every time you thought you knew who was going to buy it, the sequence went onto someone else) and capped its initial reference to bird droppings with Big Bird Droppings (blue ice!);
- the way Nate Fisher (Peter Krause), still guiltily ultra-stressing over his missing wife, totally blew a grieving husband out of the funeral home;
- brother David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) and business partner Rico’s (Freddy Rodriquez) moment of bonding and commiseration over the dead woman’s body: the comic disconnection between the two big points of conflict in each man’s life (one thinks his sister-in-law is ruining his marriage; the other worries that his relationship with ex-cop Keith is obliterating his “entire sense of self worth”);
- David’s admission to estranged lover Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) that one of the first things that attracted him was the thought of a cop as protector (which shed extra light on the reason he freaked once Keith started indulging in sexually risky behavior);
- the repeated visitations by the ever-entertaining late Dad Fisher (Richard Jenkins), each tailored to the respective visitant’s emotional state; favorite moment: when Nathaniel matter-of-factly discusses his widow’s impending marriage (“That man is alive, and I’m dead. I think that means he wins.”)
- Claire Fisher’s (Lauren Ambrose) vision of the afterlife as one great big outdoor fair;
- Brenda Chenowith’s (Rachel Griffiths) characteristically prickly flirtation with a French horn playing neighbor;
- the sight of Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy) and new hubby George (James Cromwell) dancing to Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over;”
Looking back at the season as a whole, I can’t help noting how much spottier it was than number two (this from a series that has never been as tightly written on an episode-by-episode basis as The Wire – to pick an example from the very next hour of Sunday HBO scheduling). Characters came and went without much fare-thee-well (Catharine O’Hara’s wonderfully whacked-out Hollywoodian, Kathy Bates’ energetically earthy Auntie Mame to Ruth Fisher’s Patrick), so when Nate’s wife Lisa (Lili Taylor) did her disappearing act, it didn’t have half the impact that it should’ve. Poor Brenda, the self-destructive focus of so much of the second season was relegated to the sidelines for much of season three, while many of the other regulars’ respective plotlines were just plain overcooked (David and Keith’s down-and-down relationship, Claire’s attraction to a fellow art student everyone else thinks is gay, Nate’s doomed marriage to the whiney Lisa). Each of these last had their moments (the couples counseling sessions early in the season, for instance, had some funny pay-offs as David and Keith awkwardly attempted to “safely” discuss things that bothered them), but they were also repetitiously presented. Case in point: Claire’s willful denial around her boyfriend’s sexuality, which extended long past any reasonable measure of credulity.
Frankly, after last year’s disappointing season of The Sopranos, I was looking to the Fishers to fill in for Tony & kin in the Dysfunctional Family Derby. (At least Six Feet kept its eye on its focal family – even when we wished it would’ve looked elsewhere.) That they didn’t quite make it demonstrates, I guess, how hard really good grown-up television can be to write on a regular basis. . .