'Six Feet' continues to unearth brilliance
Drama as restless as ever in fourth season
"I'm trying to break my eye open," Claire Fisher tells her brother David in the season opener of Alan Ball's "Six Feet Under."
She's not being gross and violently twisted, like the damaged cadavers lying stiff in the Fisher basement. "To break my eye open" is a phrase she picked up from her pretentious art teacher, Olivier, the self-hating ego tripper who charmed her, then slept with her boyfriend. She is, as she explains in her marvelously world-weary, pallid tone, "learning to see things differently without all the same tired associations we've made all our sad lives, blah, blah, blah."
And that's what everyone is attempting to do on this dreamy, unsettling, and blackly comic HBO series, which returns for its fourth season Sunday night at 9 on a very strong note. Each member of the Fisher family, along with those who've fallen into their orbit -- Brenda, Keith, Claire's sister, the otherworldly Arthur -- is still trying to break through the dirt, to "break into blossom," as poet James Wright wrote.
Indeed, they may be the most restless ensemble of characters on TV, endlessly writhing toward something beyond the already known, at times using -- though not abusing -- drugs to inch further. Chasing her true identity, matriarch Ruth (Frances Conroy) jumps into a sudden marriage to the enigmatic George (James Cromwell). Lost after an overanalyzed youth, the ever-antsy Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) abandons abstinence to pursue a sexual adventure with newcomer Joe (Justin Theroux).
Claire (Lauren Ambrose) may be the hungriest of them all when the season opens, as she sits in her bedroom in the grim Fisher home gazing longingly at the intimate, gender-charged photography of Nan Goldin. Will she fall for a lesbian performance artist with the Warholian name of Edie (Mena Suvari, from Ball's "American Beauty"), who helps Claire realize she may never have had a real orgasm? There's no virtue in giving away a long list of plot developments here -- except to say that there are a few unexpected turns on the way, particularly after this week's sad episode, which ties up some of last season's loose ends.
One of the strengths of "Six Feet Under" continues to be the way it keeps viewers off-balance as much as it keeps its characters off-balance, asking us, too, to break our own eyes open. Just as each week's opening death sequence tricks us about how a person will die and throws us off, the whole show defies our TV-bred expectations. It's a series that tries to challenge our assumptions about how TV narratives work, about how many categories of sexual orientation actually exist, about just how closely death really does stalk all of us -- even the young and healthy.
Notice how Brenda remains integral to the series, despite the fact that she's no longer living with a Fisher. She's not even the mother of Nate's child. Most TV series would deem her irrelevant and phase her out out of the plot, and then possibly bring her back later in the show's run. But "Six Feet Under" suffuses its storytelling with a sense of randomness, a sense that there doesn't have to be a conventional link between each of its characters, or between events.
The "Six Feet Under" writers, including Ball, Jill Soloway, Craig Wright, and Rick Cleveland, continue to add both haunting and humorous layers to the melodrama. There are a few funny allusions to "The Shining" this season, as well as a brilliantly clever opening death, next week, involving blow-up dolls and religious fervor. And the actors do justice and then some to the scripts. Even a minor character like funeral-home assistant Arthur is made indelible and unique by Rainn Wilson. Amid the gloom of the Fisher home, he can bring great comic life to a mundane line such as "I'll just grab my cottage cheese and take it up to my room."
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.