Monday, July 25, 2005

Early RIP for "Six Feet Under"

If you don’t have HBO and/or don't care about "Six Feet Under," sorry, this is the obligatory end-of-series rant.

I’ve been watching “Six Feet Under” since the start. The show has always been erratic, in part because of the limitations of the funeral home/family drama premise. Realistically speaking, how many spectacular deaths and seriocomic existential crises can befall one family in a limited timespan? How much ironic, smart-alecky quirkiness can be larded on top of the deaths and crises without driving the audience away?

Still, it was often so well-written and surprising that these weaknesses faded into the background. And a few times it achieved an especially rich mixure of emotional power and unsettling complexity. The last few episodes of the third season, when one of the characters – the sweet, soul-sucking wife of the central character Nate – disappears and turns up dead, were remarkable explorations of the tenuousness of life. They turned something we all try to avoid thinking about into irrestible, wrenching drama.

But now it’s the last season, and SFU has jumped the shark. The characters are still quirky and impossibly clever, and existential crises abound. It has its moments and is still among the best-written shows on TV. But the surprise has gone out of it – the kiss of (forgive me) death for a show like this.

During its earlier seasons, the show managed to be both mordant and effervescent – the themes of mortality and danger were counterbalanced not just by comedy but by sly surprise. The writers took whatever dramatic premise they were working with and twisted and upended it a couple of times beyond even what made dramatic sense. This season, they’re not doing that. Most of the main characters have been behaving in predictably wrongheaded and self-destructive ways, but without the revelatory twists.

The season began with the disastrous wedding of Nate and Brenda, and they have been tediously arguing, and arguing about the nature of their arguments, ever since. The writers have never known what to do with Rico and Vanessa, Latino characters evidently meant to make the show less demographically white-upper-middle-class-highly-educated. And this season they have also been endlessly churning over the sorry state of their marriage. A plotline in which brother David and his partner Keith adopt two troubled kids so far appears to be mostly movie-of-the-week inspirational material, though I suppose the elder of the kids could go postal before it’s done – but that would be predictable too. Since it’s the last season, viewers began laying bets on who would die. At the conclusion of this week’s episode, Nate had some kind of massive brain attack and collapsed. The last shot is of his face, eyes open and blank. I could go on …

There are some redeeming elements. Claire’s temping job in a cubicle hell with annoying co-workers and an office catch phrase (“yeah baby!” – should every office have a catch-phrase?), is extremely amusing. And any time Patricia Clarkson reappears, things liven up considerably.

I’m sorry to see the show stumble offstage. Watching it and other sui generis shows such as “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood,” you realize just how hard it is to get all the elements consistently right, hour after hour. A tiny plot swerve or tonal miscue can throw off a whole episode. It’s hard to keep it going for years. SFU is simply showing its age.