This HBO series initially aspired to fits of Twin Peaks-like whimsy, with each episode starting with a death more outlandish than the previous, but soon settled into a comfortable groove that harkened back to the most familiar of TV family dramas (in fact, it's almost a mirror image of '70s drama Family, down to the three sibling archetypes). Of course, its HBO roots allowed it ample leeway with sex, drug usage, profanity, and violence. While the writing strove to be a little too clever, the overall look and tone of the show remained solid and sometimes profound (sometimes absurd too, but usually with good reason). Krause and Hall, as initially warring brothers who come to a wary understanding, are solid anchors, but it's the women in the cast who do the most phenomenal work. Conroy infuses her almost stereotypical mom with an obstinate but ultimately accepting heart, and Ambrose's Claire is by far the show's most appealing character. And stealing scenes left and right is Rachel Griffith's Brenda, a mystery woman with an outlandish backstory who meets Nate on a plane, has sex with him at the airport, and infiltrates his life. Like Brenda herself, Six Feet Under is fascinating--and highly addictive. --Mark Englehart
Six Feet Under: The Complete Second Season-In some ways, HBO's Six Feet Under plays kid brother to stellar BMOC The Sopranos: it's spunkier, less refined, chancier, and a bit of a punk. Nevertheless, the show set in the Southern California mortuary Fisher and Sons deserves its place in the pantheon of great television series. The initial season was a showcase for the most original characters, including tight-lipped brother David (Michael C. Hall) coming out of the closet, emotionally trippy mom Ruth (Frances Conroy), and the most complex girlfriend on the face of the planet, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). Slowly, the major force in season 2 is the unassuming lead, Peter Krause. Part of the long line of good-looking actors who never get respect because they make it look too easy, Krause (Sports Night) finds the perfect blend of optimism with a wonderful, bittersweet anguish as Nate, the prodigal son.
The initial season's happy ending is forgotten as relationships change, the business is still under fire from the evil conglomerate Kroehner, and a lively dream sequence is just around the corner. As with the premier season, creator Alan Ball lets many others direct and write the show, but his stamp is all over it. The eccentricities of the characters are shaped, and not always suddenly. Take daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose), who sheds her bad boyfriend only to find more complex relationships on her road to discovering her own groove. One person in the mix is Ruth's beatnik sister (Patricia Clarkson, in an Emmy-winning role), a joyous embodiment of thriving--if aging--counter culture. Another new character is Nate's old girlfriend, the granola-loving Lisa (Lili Taylor). With Brenda heading down another destructive course, Nate is at more than one crossroads by season's end. For fans who groove with the wild, serio-comedic world of the Fishers (and let's face it, many didn't), the second season goes down like a fine meal of fusion cuisine. The show shares an unfortunate family trait with its HBO big brother: although both were lavished with multiple Emmy nominations the first two seasons, both took home only token awards. But then there's always next year. --Doug ThomasSix Feet Under: The Complete Third Season-No other show captures the ebb and flow of day-to-day human relationships like Six Feet Under, which chronicles the dysfunctional lives of the Fisher family, who run a funeral home in Los Angeles. Though the overt theme of the series is mortality--every episode opens with the death of someone whose body will end up on the Fishers' slab--but the third season, even moreso than the first two, explores the intertwining struggles for connection and for personal freedom. The season starts slowly but compellingly, laying out the changes in the Fishers' lives. Nate (Peter Krause, We Don't Live Here Anymore) has married and has a baby. David (Michael C. Hall) is settling into tense domesticity with his angry boyfriend. Claire (Lauren Ambrose) has launched into art school. Ruth (Frances Conroy), their mother, is reaching out for companionship from an emotionally stilted young intern, and Brenda (Rachel Griffiths, Hilary and Jackie), Nate's ex-fiancee, has apparently vanished from their lives.
But as storylines unfold across the 13 episodes, the emotional heft of the season comes from the expanded roles of the family's intimates. Federico (Freddy Rodriguez), who has leveraged his way into a partnership with the Fisher brothers, finds himself fighting to be treated as an equal at work and struggling with his wife's depression at home. Trying to sort out their relationship, David and Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) negotiate everything from therapy to threesomes. Meanwhile Lisa (Lili Taylor, I Shot Andy Warhol), Nate's unhappy wife, increasingly becomes the center of the season as her jealousy and need become unbearable. Though big events happen, the most jolting drama on Six Feet Under comes from small conflicts--miscommunications, crossed desires, habits that don't mesh. The cast, writers, and directors can, with breathtaking skill and subtlety, spin a brief conversation into a microcosm of the character's lives. By this third season, the show has taken on the richness and complexity of a great novel; it's an impressive and deeply enjoyable achievement. --Bret Fetzer
Six Feet Under: The Complete Fourth Season-This penultimate season of Six Feet Under continues further down the darkly disturbing path so evident in the third season. To be sure, the signature--and ultimately undefinable--blend of tragic mishap with tripped-out comic eccentricity that has stamped the series from its debut remains pervasive. It's the concentration of the mix that has changed. Leavening moments seem less organic, much as the bizarre death sequences that open each episode often turn out to be rather contrived preludes to the ensuing thematic obsessions. Which isn't to say season 4 lacks the delightfully memorable quirkiness fans have grown to expect. Recurring incidents of fecal revenge bring tensions to the surface between Ruth (Frances Conroy) and her new husband George (James Cromwell), in turn leading to young intern Arthur's resignation (Rainn Wilson's spot-on characterization is so enjoyable that his self-imposed exile from the Fisher nest early in the season is a real loss). Ruth meanwhile hooks up again briefly with the irrepressible Bettina (Kathy Bates) for an excursion south of the border.
But brooding glimpses into chaos beneath the surface provide the emotional momentum of this season, right from the opening scene, as Nate (Peter Krause) inevitably gravitates back toward Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) in the aftermath of his wife's death. As usual, writers and directors vary for each episode, but the dark eccentricities of creator Alan Ball's original characters have become more sharply focused and sustained. We seem to spend even more time viewing the world through individual points of view: Nate's roiling anger and grief or Claire's (Lauren Ambrose) newfound sexual and artistic experimentation as she learns about "grinding the corn" and attains respect as a photographer. The toxicity of relationships continues to be a preoccupation. We get the Ruth-George meltdown as well as the painful unraveling of Rico's (Freddy Rodriguez) marriage to Vanessa (Justina Machado). But the most harrowing episode follows David (Michael C. Hall) through an increasingly perilous carjacking. This nightmarish fugue, midway through, ripples out into the rest of the season, posing another threat to his tenuous relationship with Keith (Matthew St. Patrick). It sets a course for further apocalyptic imagery of environmental collapse and fallout shelters. There's little to gentle the downward slide and exposure of vulnerability, save taking refuge in the quirkiness that seems to be the Fishers' birthright. But that, as they say, is to die for. --Thomas MaySix Feet Under: The Complete Fifth Season-So much anticipation pools up around the concluding episode of this concluding season that you might be tempted to head straight for said finale, titled "Everyone's Waiting" (and it's so rich you'll find yourself drawn to repeated viewings). But if you can avoid that impulse, it's worth following the full build-up of one crisis after another to get the real payoff. On an episode-by-episode basis, Six Feet Under's fifth season has a decidedly uneven quality, shifting in tone far more drastically, say, than the intensely dark season 4. Character traits that have already been developed at length begin to seem annoyingly repetitious--Nate's (Peter Krause) self-centered frustration and furious lashings out, Billy's (Jeremy Sisto) resurgent psychosis--like leitmotifs run amuck. But this season also benefits from the knowledge we've developed, over the years, of the Fisher family and their loved ones, so that what they end up facing has a real emotional wallop, sometimes jump-starting the drama just where it seems to be in danger of churning itself into circles.
It's hardly a spoiler to mention that 6fu's final season, though bookended by the promise of new beginnings (a wedding in episode 1 to a departure for new prospects in the 12th episode), centers around loss and a pivotal death. The scripts contain more than an occasional sense of inconsequential filler, while some of the recurring thematics seem forced (we see David continue to cope with the scars from his abduction in the previous episode via over-obvious imagery of facing his "inner demons"). Other issues receive especially compelling treatment, above all Brenda's (Rachel Griffiths) desire to have a child and David and Keith's (Mathew St. Patrick) choice to adopt. But the real strength of this season lies in several gripping performances. Ruth (Frances Conroy) touches off a complex series of reactions, simultaneously sympathetic and judgmental, transcending the tendency to appear as a neurotic caricature. The super-talented Lauren Ambrose brings off Claire's emerging self-awareness and maturity with moving touches (she's also got some of the funniest moments as she takes on a stint as a temp in scenes that call to mind the hysterics of The Office). Griffiths' Brenda for her part undergoes a parallel maturing process. And as George's daughter Maggie, Tina Holmes adds a welcome tone of contrast.
6fu, of course, has always been about the paradoxes of finality. But anyone who has developed an attachment to the show's unique tone and creative sensibility will have a tough time saying goodbye. Alan Ball outdoes himself with his script (and direction) for the finale, "Everyone's Waiting," seeding it with echoes from the pilot episode that will enchant aficionados. And the famous fast-forward visions coursing through Claire's imagination as she heads down the highway give the perfect seal to this set of characters. Extras include especially insightful commentaries, including Ball on the finale, retrospectives, and a mini-feature on 6fu's cultural impact. It's safe to say that the show leaves some pretty unforgettable impressions in its wake. --Thomas May