My adoration of Six Feet Under has always been tinged with mistrust. I worried that its existential indecision would take a wrong turn, that I would sour on its inability to decide whether it is inspired by Deepak Chopra or Jean-Paul Sartre. Until now, the program has taken TV drama to new levels of introspection. But this season something slipped, like a priest's hand a few inches too high on your thigh. It has become crass, each episode an empathy decathlon topped off with ghoulishly deferred catharsis.
It seems the writers have developed an addiction to unnecessary trauma like a poet I once knew who cut herself not because she was mentally ill, but because it would sound right in a future biography. The first segment to give me pause was the burial of Nate Fisher's wife, Lisa (Lili Taylor). We had already been maxed out on Nate's (Peter Krause) grief, strung along from the point where she went missing to a brief period in which she was thought to have been abducted by a serial killer, to her rotted body washing up on shore.
On most shows, Nate's Olympic grieving would be enough to indicate his loss. Not here. Nate decides Lisa must be buried as she had requested, with no physical barriers (such as a coffin) between her and the earth. He drives her body to a deserted hill, digs a grave and flops her waterlogged remnants into the dirt, literally losing his mind as he hears her slop into the hole. This went beyond gratuitous.
It's not every series that can make you say, "You lost me with the psychotic-crackhead-mugger episode," but there you have it. In one recent episode, David (Michael C. Hall) dreams he picks up a hitchhiker who beats him, demands he remove money from an ATM, threatens to kill him, makes him do crack and have anal sex, dumps gasoline on him and leaves him for dead. All this is revealed in such detail and at such a languorous pace that it feels like a long, locked stare, grotesque and rattling. One can't help but wonder if the writers have come to view such behavior as universal, picturing a world of martyrdom and sadistic domination, punctuated by exquisite agony.
The show's sexual candor used to be its strong suit, but this season morbidity has taken root: David was sucked off by a plumber who helped to clean up a wading pool of corpse blood. Such furtive urge-feedings reduce the characters to products of an ambitionless will to power, their moral anchors tissue-paper thin.
It appears Six Feet Under has surrendered its once-heady interests for a relatively simple obsession with sex per se. Claire's (Lauren Ambrose) tiresome ennui got a tentative jolt from her recent bicurious itch, which seems designed to satisfy the Penthouse Forum demographic by bringing some hot girl-on-girl action to the small screen. David has strayed into casual liaisons, even though last season his relationship was torn asunder by a string of threesomes. Nate drifts around, loving his wife more dead than alive and salving his wounds with whatever convenient nookie he can find.
Even Ruth (Frances Conroy) is having a headboard-banging fiesta of a new marriage, despite the fact that she barely knows her remote, trivial gnat of a husband (James Cromwell). This alone wouldn't make me uncomfortable; I love sex and rarely get enough of talking about it. But here the sex is either pathological or too much like those fundamentalist conversion narratives in which decadence leads the unbeliever to the path of conservative righteousness.
These elements of the new episodes have me reconsidering the motives of series creator Alan Ball, who previously seemed like one of those harmless Unitarian liberals who know their chi as well as their Tibetan Book of the Dead. Now I'm wondering whether he's a repressed Christian whose festering faith has him trying to reconcile nihilism, sexuality and a universe in some sort of moral balance.
In this context, the series' grappling with religious questions has become more hodgepodge and accusatory than in previous seasons. Is Lisa's death punishment for Nate's wandering cock? Is Claire's abortion an indictment of her character? Was David "asking for" violence because he can't be monogamous? That I'm even asking such questions means I no longer trust Six Feet Under's framework. If the writers wish to be moralists, they should just get on with it, instead of panting over their protagonists' distress the way Mel Gibson did over Jesus'.
Where I used to see an admirable ambiguity in the show's magic realism, I now see arcane hollowness. A surfeit of psychologizing and sarcasm relegates religious experience to the realm of hallucination, which may or may not have some reality to it. As the tension between godlessness and soul-searching teeters in favor of the former, the characters' notorious conversations with the dead increasingly reflect a belief that life is just a series of nervous breakdowns until you die a horrible, inexplicable death. The opening scenes of out-of-the-blue deaths now seem less like humorous reminders of our fragility and more like gruesome indications of our pointlessness.
As I struggled to find a defining trope for my discomfort, I kept returning to Brenda's (Rachel Griffiths) latest relationship, with her neighbor (Justin Theroux). Still recovering from sex addiction, she ends up with a nice guy who can't get hard without being humiliated, forcing her into the role of reluctant dominatrix. Her simple needs are distorted by someone who can't have intimacy without abuse, or, more judgmentally, someone who fetishizes his own guilt. I feel like I've struck a similar Faustian bargain, looking for decent entertainment.
Six Feet Under used to provide thematic intensity and compelling characters, exploring the ambiguities and fears that our culture papers over with platitudes. But I don't want to watch sexualized suffering, a crack addict force someone to fuck him up the ass or de Sadean rewrites of The Waltons. Granted, lauded TV dramas often slide into soap opera. Six Feet Under, however, looks more and more like a spiritual snuff flick, in which God whittles off Faith and Hope because we like it that way. I'm nobody's bitch; I'm ready to leave this brand of emotional pornography behind.
(The season finale of Six Feet Under airs at 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 12, on HBO.)