|Six Feet Under: Season Four (2004)
Starring: Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Rachel Griffiths, Freddy Rodríguez, Mathew St. Patrick, James Cromwell, Justina Machado, Jeremy Sisto
This is where “Six Feet Under” began for me. I’d always been somewhat intrigued by the commercials I saw for the program and I was well aware of all the praise it received but, for whatever reason, I never tuned in. Then I got hooked on “Deadwood” and “Carnivale,” and I was already a “Sopranos” junkie, so when HBO began promoting the fourth season of “Six Feet Under,” I figured I’d give it a shot. Admittedly, as a series newbie I was lost in the early going but, nonetheless, the credits rolled on the season’s first episode, “Falling Into Place,” and I was a fan. Dark, uplifting, funny, morbid and inspiring, sometimes all at once, this fourth season of “Six Feet Under” is brilliant, powerful and, as I can attest to, instantly captivating.
The story picks up with Nate (Peter Krause), the eldest of the Fisher children, mourning the loss of his wife Lisa and turning to the infinitely screwed up Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) for comfort. Now a widower and a single father, Nate finds direction in his life by focusing on his daughter Maya and his evolving relationship with Brenda. David (Michael C. Hall), Nate’s gay younger brother, attempts to keep his rocky relationship with Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) afloat, a task made even harder after he’s carjacked and tormented by a guy who was just looking for a ride to an ATM. Then there’s Claire (Lauren Ambrose), the baby of the family, an artist struggling to make a name for herself and wrestling with her unexpected feelings for the seductive Edie (Mena Suvari). As for Ruth (Frances Conroy), the Fisher family matriarch and quite possibly the most depressing character on television, she’s positively giddy following her marriage to George (James Cromwell), but her happiness fades once she begins to learn more about George’s sordid past.
The “SFU” writing and directing team, led by series creator Alan Ball (“American Beauty”), treats each episode with care and precision, allowing the characters to develop naturally rather than forcing them into linear storylines. Nate’s newfound devotion to Maya in the midst of his overwhelming grief is genuine and, while some shows may have worked hard to pair Nate and Brenda back together, their codependence flows freely through the overall story, leading to Brenda’s breakup with perhaps the first normal guy she’s ever been with (“Coming and Going”). This organic approach not only ensures that the show’s characters are compelling, but that their motivations are believable and their actions are authentic. After hooking up with a stripper in season three, Rico (Freddy Rodríguez) spends the better part of season four trying to either keep his wife Vanessa (Justina Machado) in the dark or revive his failing marriage. But when Vanessa learns the truth and tracks down Rico’s girlfriend, her response is honest, brutal and pretty damn funny. For the same reasons, the season’s most powerful episode, “That’s My Dog,” is also its most disturbing. After riding around with David throughout his horrific carjacking, we can practically taste the gun that’s shoved in his mouth and smell the gasoline he’s doused with during the episode’s closing moments.
Of course, even the best writers and directors won’t be very successful if they’re not working with skilled cast members. Fortunately, “Six Feet Under” is loaded with talent, top to bottom. Griffiths is sensational as the deeply troubled and painfully needy Brenda, as is Jeremy Sisto, who returns this season as Brenda’s brother Billy, a guy even more whacked out than his sister. Cromwell’s George somehow manages to be likable and irritating at the same time, and his season-long descent into mental illness is subtle yet highly effective. But the Fishers carry the bulk of the story, and each member of the family is played to perfection, especially David and Nate. In fact, both parts seem to have been written specifically for Hall and Krause respectively, though interestingly enough, Krause actually auditioned for David, a fact that’s revealed in one of the set’s bonus features.
Speaking of which, there are plenty of extras here to keep most “SFU” fans entertained for a few hours. Seven episodes feature writer/director audio commentaries, including a fascinating contribution from director Alan Poul on “That’s My Dog” detailing the controversy the episode stirred up when it first aired. There’s also a selection of deleted scenes and a featurette entitled “Cut by Cut,” which takes an in-depth look at the series’ editing process. Finally, the Fishers – Krause, Hall, Ambrose and Conroy – discuss the show’s popular opening death sequences, the response they’ve received from the funeral-director community, and their own near-death experiences in a 15-minute interview with Bob Costas.
Many longtime “Six Feet Under” fans contend the show lost some of its momentum in season four, playing more as a drama than a dark comedy. Given my brief relationship with the show, I obviously can’t comment on its evolution in very much detail, but I can definitely see why longtime fans could harbor these sentiments. After all, while this season of “Six Feet Under” certainly has its fair share of funny moments – and there are quite a few – the overall mood is rather somber. Then again, we’re talking about a show that deals with death and is centered on a family that runs a funeral home, so somberness seems almost inevitable. Yet despite the doom and gloom, this fourth season of “Six Feet Under” can make you laugh just as easily as it can make you cry, and its characters can inspire you just as easily as they can disappoint you. If that’s not the definition of a great show, it should be. I only wish I had discovered it sooner, and that it had stuck around longer.