With several prestigious awards, including two Golden Globes, under its first season’s belt, the second season of the HBO series Six Feet Under has surpassed expectations and ranks among the best of recent television programming. Lead director/writer Alan Ball has assembled a host of top-notch directors and writers, and their rotation keeps the writing fresh, compelling, and at times mesmerizing.
The second season takes a pronouncedly Tolstoyan turn in storytelling. The Fisher family is unhappy in its own very specific, eccentric ways. Romantic and dramatic dynamics interweave into the complex, nuanced web of social relationships. Even the most minor characters are fleshed out into recognizable personalities.
Mother Ruth is discovering herself as a sexually active middle-aged widow as her daughter Claire, fatally attracted to “bad boys” struggles with the messy dark side of life. Ruth becomes caught up in (a painfully funny send up) an experiment in a self-help cult and the needy, narcissistic people it sucks in, only to have a brush with the Russian Mafia and nursing her poor-patient boyfriend. Claire’s quasi Gothic connections reveal her natural talent as a photographer.
Brothers Nate and David pursue the bumpy road to long-term commitment—Nate’s fiancee Brenda takes to a prostitute-confidante and sexual addiction to avoid intimacy. David’s past closetedness no longer works as “the” explanation for the work of building a relationship with Keith. Keith, meanwhile deals with a lying, drug-addicted sister and traumatized niece, while coming to terms with havingkilled a man in the line of duty for the first time. Federico’s family and money problems lead him to falsely suspect his wife of cheating, and there is a side tour of homophobia Latino-style.
Each episode opens with the featured death of the week. The Fishers’ interaction with the bereaved (or not) underscores the personal, moral, and existential quandaries characters and audience are asked to meditate upon each week. The wakes also serve as vignette-length studies in differing cultural approaches to death. One week a biker’s “road family” funeral inspires Nate; the next a traditional Thai Buddhist ceremony serves as catharsis to let go of the past.
Across the hall from the Wisteria Room (where business and wakes are conducted), the evil corporate funeral empire has installed free of charge (as a bribe) an entire wall of casket samples. David revels in the commercial fantasy-fulfillment, which resembles nothing more than a car room showcase filled with shiny, tail-finned Cadillacs.
Dreams, visions, and periodic visits by the ghost of Nathaniel the elder hold the web of life together. A sublime moment of the vision of Six Feet Under occurs early in the second season. In a guilt-laced dream, young Nate finds himself being invited to join his father in a game of high-stakes poker (the gamble of life) with two cronies —a Mafioso type (an incarnation of the Devil) and a voluptuous N’Awlins voodoo princess (brazenly embodying the Life Force). Bored with Nate’s indecision, Life and Death slip out to carouse off-stage. Only in death (and the series cinematography) do the complex, colorful grays of life fade to the blissful silence of white.