Feet forward

The fourth season of "Six Feet Under" offers an exquisitely sad, gorgeous picture of the thrills and catastrophes of everyday life.

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Feet forward

Nate: You don’t want to end up in a graveyard?

Lisa: The whole world’s a graveyard.

Every human on this earth is living with a death sentence, and an awareness of this fact alone is enough to infuse even the simplest, most insignificant moments with weight and purpose. This weight, and not the rapid-fire wit of cops or the shock of a surprise witness in the courtroom, is what gives “Six Feet Under” its dramatic intensity. There are no FBI agents or politicians or teenagers who know God’s home phone number to drag us, kicking and screaming, into familiar territory. Created by “American Beauty” screenwriter Alan Ball, the series (the fourth season premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.; HBO) centers on the little discoveries and disappointments and hopes and missteps that make up a life.

Or, as Nate Fisher would put it, “It’s all so fucking impossible!” Given the tendency of most TV characters to grit their teeth or shed quiet, dignified tears over harsh realities, “Six Feet Under” has a gratifying inclination not to pull any punches. Unfortunately, this means that the first episode of the season is pretty somber, since we pick up where we left off last season, with Nate just having learned that his wife, Lisa, has been found dead. At first, it’s easy to wonder why the show’s writers didn’t skip over the mourning process, which really belongs with last season’s plot, and join the story with Nate back on his feet and ready to live again.

But then you’re talking about an entirely different show. “Six Feet Under” has always focused on death as a starting point — each episode of the show opens with another death, and, for the survivors, death marks a new beginning. The process of Nate’s mourning fits in so beautifully with the show’s premise that the writers couldn’t possibly pass up this opportunity to explore such an intimate, unsettling journey with the show’s lead character. Nate (Peter Krause) can try our patience, as well as his family’s, with all of his howling at the moon (“When do I get to self-destruct?” Claire demands indignantly), but it makes sense that he’s navigating such treacherous waters. Bless his broken heart, his role on the show is to be the guy whose sweater just keeps getting snagged on life, and instead of knitting himself a new one, he rips the whole thing to shreds and then lies in the pile of shredded yarn, weeping.

Luckily, David (Michael C. Hall) and Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) make up for it by providing a little more lightness than they did last season, with Keith taking a job as a bodyguard for celebrities that proves to be a little more challenging than he expected. “My job is to not put my hands on anybody,” he murmurs huskily to David. “My job is to low-tone it and defuse the situation before it becomes a situation.” True to his word, Keith has lost some of his fury, and he and David suddenly have an ability to step back from their squabbles and laugh at themselves.

Typical fictional couples are either dreamily happy or miserable, but Ball and the other writers seem to recognize that a history of big conflicts and breakups and sticking points don’t mean that two people are incapable of being happy together. After all of the therapy and nitpicking and hysteria, seeing David and Keith finally relax and take things in stride is comforting. Although they were a little awkward together and tough to accept as a couple during the first season, at this point they’ve got more chemistry than Rachel and Ross, Sam and Diane, and Donna and Josh combined. Michael C. Hall has such a liquid face; every second thought and passing mood floats across his features like little waves in a pool. Paired with St. Patrick’s macho stoicism and oddly palpable vulnerability, every scene with these two is riveting. You’d be hard-pressed to find a richer, more realistic depiction of married life than the one offered in their scenes together. Staunch opponents of gay marriage, take note.

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Meanwhile, a very different picture of marriage is being painted by Ruth (Frances Conroy) and her new husband, George (James Cromwell). For all of her stodgy parenting, Ruth is in many ways far more spontaneous and impulsive than her daughter, Claire (Lauren Ambrose). Having just married a man she hardly knows, Ruth finds herself struggling to incorporate George into her life without the cooperation of her family. In fact, her kids are so rude to George it’s amusing, but it’s one of the only aspects of the show that doesn’t seem all that realistic. A subtler approach — having the kids try to interact with George and fail, then get snippy — would be more compelling. As it stands, it’s a little too clear to the kids (and therefore, to the audience) that George is bad news, despite the fact that his character isn’t really revealing that many warning signs, outside of vague statements he makes to Ruth like, “You’ve lived your life one way. I’ve lived mine another. The costs are different” or “I’m looking forward, not back.” Either a severe and sudden turn to the dark side on George’s part, Tony Blundetto-style, is forthcoming, or future episodes will feature a few more hints at what George is all about. As it stands, he may be one of the flattest characters on the show, but Ruth’s uptight chirpiness, alternating with a strange, almost ethereal grace and luminosity, bring life to their scenes together.

Meanwhile, Claire’s scenes are livelier than ever. “I’m sick of everything being so fucking awful all the time,” she announces to her family at the kitchen table in the first episode. Fed up with the hysterically melodramatic antics of her drama-queen ex-boyfriend Russell, Claire is ready to move on to bigger and better things, making new friends at school and finding new sources of inspiration. Suddenly she’s waking up to all of the possibilities in life, sexually and otherwise.

In a breathtaking attempt to express herself openly and tell others exactly what she wants and doesn’t want, Claire is experimenting with her assertiveness. While her cocky flirtations and insensitivity can be tough to take, it’s clear she’s trying to find a style that feels right to her. Could she end up like Margaret, Brenda’s self-indulgent, borderline sociopathic mother? Or will she find some middle ground as an emotional, assertive artist? For all of her mistakes, Claire might be the most grounded of the Fishers, and she’s certainly the most dedicated to pursuing her own path. While she started out with such blandly boy-crazy story lines, these days it’s both inspiring and fun to see Claire sort through art-school pretensions, hipster afflictions and empty intellectualism, casting each aside in her relentless pursuit of something pure and worthwhile.

Like Claire, “Six Feet Under” has evolved far beyond its beginnings, and only concerns death in as much as death brings our focus back to the problem of living. While zany undertaker stories are nice as an occasional diversion, the meat here is in the finely drawn characters trying desperately to sally forth in the face of such a rich awareness of how little time they’re given.

Not surprisingly, imitations of “Six Feet Under” abound: “Dead Like Me,” “Tru Calling,” “Out of Order” and the now-canceled “Wonderfalls,” all trying to mimic the show’s strange mix of cynicism, earnestness, magic and melancholy. No other show comes close to packing even its smallest stories with such a dramatic punch, though. Part of the credit for this should go to Alan Caso, the show’s director of photography, who makes sure every single shot is as clean and beautiful and dramatically lit as a photograph hanging in a gallery. Much of the credit should also go to the talented actors that make up the cast.

Mostly, though, the show’s imitators make the mistake of trumping up the importance of each plot twist instead of lingering as close to reality as possible. Oddly, realism is what gives “Six Feet Under” its high stakes. By depicting life’s experiences the way they feel to real people, the show’s writers bring a tangible sense of elation or regret or confusion to the smallest scenes. When Claire sees classmate and performance artist Edie (Mena Suvari) onstage for the first time, and her eyes get wide and glow, even as Russell panders for her attention, you remember that feeling of awe you got when you were young and you met someone who was everything you wanted to become. When David and Keith glance at each other and laugh after a moment of pointless bickering, you can feel that sense of familiarity and deep love and regret that comes from being with the same frustrating but lovable person for years. When Nate seeks out affection in the wake of Lisa’s (Lili Taylor) death, you get a taste of how it feels to endure the death of someone close, the intense desire, in the face of despair, to feel and celebrate the fact that you’re still alive. No matter how weighty and dramatic the story lines might be, no matter how beautifully the scenes are shot or how salient and rich the dialogue is, the whole always feel organic and familiar.

By this point, most viewers are inured to courtrooms and hospitals and police headquarters. We’ve occupied these spaces for far too long. Thanks to this familiarity, their dramas have to be amped up beyond realistic proportions just to get our attention. Look at shows like “The Practice” and “CSI: Miami” and “ER” for a slice of the current cartoonish, absurd streak that runs through most dramas. Disasters must be bigger and more horrifying than ever, crimes must be more complicated and absurd and difficult to predict, and the stakes are pushed so high we can’t buy one bit of it, let alone relate to it.

Meanwhile, the stuff of everyday life holds all of the tragedy and elation and melancholy that it ever has. On “Six Feet Under,” we encounter characters who are just normal people, trying to find happiness the way normal people do. They talk around the truth, they cringe, they smirk, they lie to themselves, they show up late, they make mistakes, they try again. It’s all so fucking impossible, and that’s what makes it all so extraordinary.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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