The living end of Six Feet Under.

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Feb. 28 2003 10:03 PM

Under and Out

The living end of Six Feet Under.

(Continued from Page 1)

Ruth has a female friend—Kathy Bates in her old salty-talking, lawless Mama Cass mode—to whom she is physically attracted. Claire has paired with a male friend, who is, as the season opens, presumably gay. And a pair of blustering older male artists, while ostensibly wild womanizers, reveal to Claire the tormented freedoms of their hot buddy-rival relationship. In a drag sideshow, an unhinged camp character (Catherine O'Hara, under miserable direction)—recalling the buzz-kill trio of Tracy, Mitzi, and Amanda from the first two seasons—bursts in, shrilly interrupting the show's familiar rhythm of whispering and shouting.

Through all this, however, Ball's crypto-recovery-movement philosophy of self and family—which has always reliably propelled the show's action without itself being engaging—continues to play itself out in these freer relationships, as when Keith says of passive David, "I always thought that by being gay I'd avoid fucking my mother, but I guess that's not the case."

If the Fisher family has become a diaspora, the counterpoint Chenowith family has vanished. The core cast is so rarely together that sparks must be forced to fly though the device of overheard answering-machine messages (this in spite of the nation's near-universal switch to voicemail) and an oversensitive baby monitor. The ties that tangled up the Fishers and the Chenowiths, internally and then with each other, during the first two seasons have simply come undone. Six Feet Under now works on a free-agent system, and the paradigmatic hero here is the liberated gay man.

And why not? Who would want to nest here, where the one family left is unbearable? Nate's terrifying marriage and indifferent fatherhood offers nothing at all: The new Fisher family is so cramped and Lisa so humorless, cloying, and compulsive that the Fishers of old now almost seem like free spirits.

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In a formerly hushed world of grief and reverence, nothing now is sacred. A bomb has hit. Nate has died, and from his post-op vantage no secrets are hid. Everyone is out, revealed, in therapy or art: Brenda, Ruth, David, all of them. And now that they've given in, they have no need to clean obsessively. They're tracked for gut-spilling: just the cliché the show has attempted all this time to avoid.

In art school, Claire is told that great art "affects your body, your liver, your bowels!"

"It seems kind of obvious," she replies. Maybe it is. But Lauren Ambrose, like everyone else, is signed on for the entire season.

Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.