Segueing back to his TV pedigree after winning an Oscar for writing American Beauty authenticated Alan Ball's ambitions. The depth of Six Feet Under's 50-plus hours thus far, and not simply the absence of Sam Mendes's flatulent pretension, has pulled away the writer's preferred cloak of lugubrious deliberation and fashionable acerbity to demonstrate he's accepted the show is, rather nakedly, what American Beauty insisted it was not: a cynical bitchfest of a soap opera disguised as introspective angst-fueled drama. HBO's specialty is cultivating stories that would fail in any medium but a serialized format, and Six Feet Under, now in its fifth and final season, stands as the network's most disconcerting and heretical balancing act, a dubiously fascinating freak show that achieves entertainment value through the cautiously rationed debasement of its own characters. It doesn't mock its pestilential vision of societal discord, nor actively encourage the audience to do so, yet taken at face value, it's often a hopelessly disheveled collision of melodramatic pretense and perverse earnestness. If one imagines its tongue might be in the vicinity of some cheek, however, it becomes a mesmerizing train wreck to behold, occasionally so much so that the tongue itself is all but forgotten.
Twice as psychotically gnarled as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under is predicated on a concept, rather than a plot, that has never allowed a fully realized exploration of its many devices. Outwardly about the toils of the Fisher family, who own and operate a funeral home in the wake of their patriarch's death, the show embarked with savage, modishly sarcastic attempts at fracturing the taboos of death as well as the glibly precise moral shadings found in Los Angeles territory, and has since advanced inward, where the episodes have become ambiguously self-reflexive embodiments of the characters' fragile psyches. The third season's first episode toyed with the possibility that the Fishers' world may very well exist inside the vacuum of a parallel universe projected from the protagonist's tortured mentality, and it's this context of dreamlike unreality that embalms the show's more recent episodes with a vulgar allure, if hardly any relevant insight. Each segment plays like an anthropological excursion into a nightmare of humanity so berserk it can only be rationalized as a close encounter of the third kind, with self-loathing and emotional irrationality so vividly externalized they often are comically shocking.
There's been an odd episode that has broken through the whiny morass to achieve something close to actual drama, most strikingly the opening of the fourth season that found erstwhile commoner Nate (Peter Krause) dealing with the death and burial of his wife. Once past this key juncture, the series devolved into idly recapitulating themes and events from the first two seasons under a dark umbrella of refined melancholy, weakly hustling anti-soulmates Nate and Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) back together while apathetically shackling the other characters with stifling distractions: Ruth (Frances Conroy) with odd second husband George (James Cromwell), David (Michael C. Hall) with his post-abduction trauma, and Claire (Lauren Ambrose) with her growing arrogance as an artist and lover. It seemed that Ball's boredom with the Fishers had permeated his open-ended story. (He has since admitted that he tried to hand the reins off, and there were no takers.) But that this farewell tour makes only subtle references to the storylines of a year ago is one way he is demonstrating that in death there may yet be life. Ball is sending the Fishers off with a revived sense of purpose that is surprising and refreshing.
The first four episodes of the final season have been stained by an ambiance of relief and finality that might accompany the passing of a loved one after a terminal illness, but there's also the welcome aroma of joyous revelry invading many scenes; now that the end's in sight, it's as if the show has relinquished its steadfast insistence that it be taken seriously and decided to make this sendoff a bit of a party. Thankfully that doesn't mean the characters are any better for wear. Finally marrying Brenda in the season's first episode, "A Coat of White Primer," and plowing away at having a second child, Nate has arrived at the precipice and indeed jumped off; the prosaic absurdity of his existence has been cemented by his union with a woman who fully embodies his evolving misery. Not surprisingly, his tenebrous addiction to Brenda's sexual enterprise and aberrant fidelity has inexorably begun to sour. "Congratulations!" he vacantly affirms when she discloses her pregnancy in the fourth episode, "Time Flies," one of the most purely enjoyable sessions of the show's entire run. Decisively charting the ongoing, expeditious corrosion of what we would be hard-pressed to identify as love, it surrounds Nate and Brenda with the various members of the Fisher clan, all assembled for an unwelcome surprise birthday party that seems more a memorial service for what was left of Nate's unrealized ambition. That it quickly boils over into a series of escalating confrontations is bluntly calculated, but the spite between Nate and Brenda that suddenly pops out like a champagne cork is bracing for a show accustomed to keeping its characters' steam bottled up.
While Nate is spackling the cracks of his repressed emotional disorientation with marriage and child-rearing, so too are David and Keith (Matthew St. Patrick), whose hopes of confirming their dedication to one another by raising a kid of their own are casually subjugated by a businesslike series of mergers and acquisitions surrounding their debate of adoption versus surrogacy, all pockmarked by David's increasingly unassuming victim complex. The fourth season's ongoing dissection of David's discomposure following his kidnapping became obvious and tiresome, but that plot has mutated into clever and intriguing shadows of his ongoing assimilation back into the world of the living. Claire, whose hipster socialite poses have stalemated her probationary artistic career, has been thrust into a similarly enlivened situation. In the beginning Claire was as close to a sympathetic character as the show would come; coming of age in the overpoweringly grotesque war zone known as Fisher & Sons echoed our own introductory perspective to the characters and their myriad dysfunctions. It was dispiriting to see her growing malicious and conceited as her photography received gallery attention, but her subsequent decision to begin dating Brenda's psychotic brother, Billy (Jeremy Sisto as one of the show's many annoying peripheral characters, finally being put to good use), has found her paid back in spades as he's once again flushed his meds down the toilet.
The most galvanizing development, however, is the brittle symbiosis between Ruth and George, who we find has been undergoing a prolonged series of shock treatments to stabilize his enduring dementia. If the Fishers are virtuosos in attracting people even more fucked up than they are (Brenda and Billy being only the brightest stars in the sky), the shreds of decency lurking under George's unhinged exterior offer their dynasty a richer perspective. Ruth has always been a control freak prepared to play her finely honed passive-aggressive trump card, yet when confronted by someone with a real necessity for her compassion, that she has shriveled so deeply into bitter selfishness, angrily blaming George for trapping her in the role of caregiver, is a thoroughly contemptuous stripping of whatever sympathies we might hold as well as a fitting summation of the family's heritage. They have vigorously sowed the seeds of their own discontent, and the monumental absence of pity in this season's various storylines causes the events to resemble a succession of long-overdue punishments finally, and gleefully, meted out. We are witnesses to this symbolic execution—or, more accurately, this collective suicide.
It would be overly dogmatic, if not entirely presumptuous, to assert that Six Feet Under has finally found a precarious footing; even at this juncture the odds are still 50/50 that this season will crash and burn like its predecessor. The rumor mill promises some major upheaval over the final eight hours, but the biggest development of all may be if the finale, set to be written and directed by Ball himself, will rally in us some genuine affection during its farewell to the Fishers. But it has already given a taste of exiting in style, and the fondness generated so far makes it palpable that the show's appeal has at least as much to do with its various derelictions as with its incidental achievements. It would be seditious to compare the show to HBO masterworks The Wire and The Sopranos, yet the place it occupies on the network's docket sustains a peculiarly spiritual balance, and the chasm it leaves will be hard to fill. This is the black sheep of the family, the disturbed cousin whose primary contributions are strife and disappointment, and yet when all is said and done it will be missed like any other.