Coming to terms with our mortality might just be impossible, and perhaps that's why the characters in Alan Ball's HBO series "Six Feet Under" haven't been spending much time talking to the dead lately. In the show's just-concluded second season, the members of the Fisher family have had fewer and fewer fantasy moments in which the people they're embalming in their funeral home appear before them, fully animated and perched on the edge of the gurney to deliver a few choice observations about Life. The Fishers' late paterfamilias, Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins), had been the most frequent manifestor, sometimes dispensing sardonic wisdom to his children -- Nate (Peter Krause), David (Michael C. Hall) and Claire (Lauren Ambrose) -- sometimes merely taunting his two sons with how little they knew about him.
Lately, though, Nate has been making his own whirlwind tour through the valley of the shadow of death, courtesy of a cluster of wayward blood vessels on his brain. Nathaniel's appearances on the show have been limited to other characters' memories, and the bodies processed by Fisher & Sons Funeral Home have stayed on the table, their lips discreetly sealed. It's as if Nate's own closer contact with the prospect of death gives the lie to such visions, which are really just a way of fudging the fact that the dead are irretrievable.
Nate is ending this year's season on the brink of cranial surgery after shepherding a disagreeable cancer patient through the man's last moments, and he seems finally to be grasping that the dead are absolutely alien, the exact opposite of ourselves, without desire but also without fear. When we conjure them in our minds, hoping for a bit of advice or comfort, we can only do it by dragging them back into the mess of living, where no one knows much of anything and muddling through is largely a matter of ignoring where it all ends. Wherever the dead have gone, it's someplace unimaginable, at least to us. The dying (which is really all of us) are another matter.
Wandering through the Fisher home and workplace, Nate picks up a photo of himself and David as children with Nathaniel. Cue the music; he looks around, over his shoulder, but no Nathaniel. Nate's finally left with no one but his mother Ruth to turn to for comfort. It may be the only time she's gotten what she wanted from one of her kids all year.
Perilous brain surgery is, of course, a soap-opera staple, and underneath its veneer of black humor, profanity and sexual bravado, "Six Feet Under" is a soap opera -- but then, what TV drama series worth watching faithfully isn't? ("The Sopranos" simply proved that if you add enough violence men will watch a soap, and marvel over the fact that "it's really about family" as if there were some other thing it could be about.) In the ongoing Fisher saga this year we've had such other classic soap devices as the sudden appearance of a baby (Nate's, by a former roommate with whom he had a one-night stand), a surprise inheritance (for Freddy Rodriguez's Rico; it will allow the Latino embalmer to purchase a 25 percent share in Fisher & Sons and save the company from closure) and the startling return of the dangerous Billy (Jeremy Sisto), the crazy but now medicated brother of Nate's girlfriend Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), from the institution where he'd been socked away.
It's Brenda's own personal meltdown, however, that's provided the most arresting spectacle this year. Griffiths earned her supporting-actress Golden Globe from last season all over again in portraying Brenda's drift into sexual compulsion: First a voyeuristic friendship with a call girl, then some hypnotically sleazy fantasies, then a hand job for one of her massage clients, some frottage with a stranger in a tony boutique and then finally a few zombified trysts, including one with two creepily blank surfers.
Griffiths made these outrageous escapades believable, despite some viewers' persistent suspicion that Rachel is really more gay man than straight woman. Her face is fascinatingly malleable after the manner of many borderline cases: It's smooth, pale and aggressively pointed when she's in one of her cynical, driven phases; now that she's destroyed her engagement to Nate, it's heartbreakingly raw and open, with her eyes seemingly doubled in size. The blistering fight that led to their breakup in this season's penultimate episode -- during which Brenda accused Nate of choosing someone as messed up as herself in order to feel more like an adult -- made for some of the most harrowing minutes of television all year.
What makes "Six Feet Under" more than a soap is just that sort of scene, with its resolute un-soapiness, its ragged authenticity and the vertiginous feeling that permanent damage is being done. Brenda may be a basket case, but when she first showed up in the show's pilot, she seemed like a breath of fresh air, frank about her family's appalling craziness in the face of Nate's bland, squirrelly, groovy-guy calm. It hurts to see her cracking, and it's unsettling.
She's not the only character whose signal trait has taken a scary turn for the worse, either. David's handsome black cop boyfriend, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), after scolding David out of the closet last season, has shown the nightmare side of his seemingly shipshape personality this time around. He turns out to have an abusive, angry father, a druggy sister and a sassy-mouthed niece he's intent on saving from the other two even if he has to kill somebody to do it. He and David have reversed roles since David came out, as couples often do when one party makes a serious change. Now Keith is the tightly wound control freak likely to explode when the tiniest fissure appears in his grimly perfect life.
That subplot would be more compelling if only St. Patrick could play Keith with something more than basic TV-actor competence. Up against Hall, who is doing the best acting in the show, he seems weirdly inert, like the grille of a Mac truck preparing to plow down David's tender dreams of family life. "I was going to make dinner," David murmurs to a glowering Keith, who pointedly ignores his lover's tear-stained face and switches on a nature program with a fast-food meal in front of him. It's a minor line, but Hall delivers it exquisitely, with a blend of Claire's adolescent sullenness and Ruth's rebuffed maternal instinct, making it clear that even this all-too-rare scene of dysfunctional gay domesticity is, in the most unexpected ways, all about family.
The meek way David absorbs Keith's surliness without becoming contemptible, the way that Claire's smirking cynicism is both refreshingly clever and poisonously callow, the way Nate can be the most emotionally competent Fisher and at the same time exasperate everyone with, as Claire puts it, his tendency to "dole out wisdom like the Dalai Lama" -- "Six Feet Under" pushes us further toward disliking its characters than any other TV show. Even at their worst, though, these people don't have the glamour of the actually evil (except, maybe, for Brenda's stupendously horrible mother), so they can't even be antiheroes. Instead, they're ordinary human beings, and that makes their often wince-inducing behavior so much harder to take.
"Six Feet Under" is remarkable precisely because it refuses to instruct us on how to feel about its characters, something no other TV show does. That includes "The Sopranos," which when you get right down to it informs us that we are to be equally repelled and attracted by Tony's violence and his alpha-male confidence. "Six Feet Under" dares us to stay connected to the Fishers, even when they make us shudder with their gawky, warty, ludicrous humanity. And for some reason, we do, because even though we don't remember signing up for it, somehow we're in for the long haul. It's not an unusual feeling, although we don't usually have it about TV shows. Just another way that it's all about family.