Aconfession: Deep down, we were wishing that "Six Feet Under" would turn out to be immortal. It was rare to see a show that so deftly melded the merry with the macabre, where the dearly departed were just as obnoxious and opinionated in the afterlife, where the characters, both the living and the dead, acted a lot like folks we know.
Okay, sometimes they acted a lot like us. Which is to say, iss-ues, people. (When will David get some therapy over his crack-smoking-abduction episode. Dude! Get over it!)
But who were we kidding? With a show dedicated to all things funereal, which killed off lead characters without a moment's hesitation, it was just a matter of time before its creator, Alan Ball, would toss dirt on the face of his own creation.
So let's call this a eulogy, an appreciation, if you will, of an Emmy-winning show that never ceased to make us squirm -- did we need to see Brenda kiss her brother Billy only to find out it was all a dream? -- at the same time it made us laugh out loud and cry real, choked-up tears.
We'll get to deconstructing the 75-minute finale, which airs Sunday on HBO at 9 p.m., in a minute. For now we'll just say this: There's not likely to be a "Six Feet Under" reunion.
When it debuted in the summer of 2001, "Six Feet" had the shock factor, to be sure. Sure, lots of television shows confront death week in, week out, but not many showed us talking dismembered corpses, hilariously inconvenient deaths and the joys of wound-filling cosmetic molding putty. After all, it was set in a funeral home, and death was . . . a business. What made it so deliciously ironic was that the funeral home's inhabitants, the Fisher family, witnessed a parade of corpses through their Victorian mansion but were no more comfortable with death than you or I.
Working around death did not make the Fishers immune to the Grim Reaper knocking on their door. This was established in the very first episode, when its patriarch, Nathaniel Fisher Sr., (Richard Jenkins) meets his end. No noble death for Pa Fisher: He's driving a hearse, trying to light a cig, when he's crushed by a bus. Ouch. He was on his way to the airport to pick up prodigal son Nate Jr. (Peter Krause), who just happens to be getting busy with Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) -- whom he just met on the flight from Seattle -- in a janitor's closet. (Nathaniel Sr. ended up haunting his family for the rest of the series.)
That first episode set several precedents: Virtually every show would begin with a death. The dead would wander in and out of the action, serving as a sort of Greek chorus, often taunting the characters with their worst fears. And there would be lots of inappropriate sex. (After all, it's HBO.)
About the inappropriate sex: Ruth, the wonderfully repressed matriarch played to perfection by Frances Conroy, was having an affair when her husband died. ("I'm a whore!" she screamed in a melodramatic moment.) David (Michael C. Hall), her son, a buttoned-up funeral director, was arrested for having sex with a male prostitute while at a mortician's convention in Vegas. Claire (Lauren Ambrose), the baby of the family, had a boyfriend who slept with their (male) teacher before she ended up sleeping with her crazy brother-in-law, Billy, played by the ferocious Jeremy Sisto. (Follow that?) And Brenda, while not a Fisher, had issues of her own: like the little sex addiction problem she developed the first time she and Nate got engaged.
Ball, who wrote the Oscar-winning "American Beauty," got the tones right, the little details of contemporary life, at the same time trafficking in the surreal, with a sudden song-and-dance routine that takes place in the character's head, or when Ruth, armed with a shotgun, abruptly starts firing at her former lovers as if they were ducks in a shooting gallery. Strong writing coupled with often-brilliant acting meant that this was a show that didn't hit too many false notes, even the times that it teetered on preposterousness.
Race, too, was handled just right. That is, acknowledged as a fact of life but not harped on. David and Keith were an interracial, black-white couple who ended up adopting older black kids after debating whether Keith, an African American, should impregnate a white surrogate. Rico (Freddy Rodriguez) was a Chicano with a Puerto Rican wife. He chastised Nate and David for not reaching out to the Latino community for business, but he wasn't the Latino with a capital L character, he was just Federico, which meant he could be just as jacked-up as the rest of them.
Which brings us to this season, which more than any other dealt with mourning and the messy fallout that comes from it, and grace that comes when you make it through the pain to the other side.
Nate dies of a brain hemorrhage, leaving behind some messy loose ends. His marriage was on the rocks, his wife, Brenda, is pregnant, and he dies not long after having sex with his stepsister, Maggie (Tina Holmes). The finale, which takes place roughly four months after Nate's death, begins with a birth instead of a death: the premature delivery of Nate and Brenda's daughter, Willa.
And rather than feeling joyful, the Fishers are losing it, completely riven by grief.
David is scaring his kids with his crazy outbursts and wild-eyed, endless scanning of the room for a red-hooded phantom that haunts him. Claire's locked up in her room after crashing the family hearse, debating whether or not she should move to New York. Rico's getting a little greedy, dreaming of riches as he plots to take over the funeral home. And at home with her new baby, Brenda is tormented by the late Nate, who keeps popping in to tell her "helpful" things such as their "damaged-goods baby" has stopped breathing. As Ruth says: "Each day I feel worse, more empty, dead."
In many ways, this isn't the best episode of "Six Feet." At times the action is strangely flat. There aren't the crazy camera angles the show became famous for. It's strangely muted, painted in washed-out grays and greens. Claire is a little too maudlin and gets over her self-centeredness with a few too many Hallmark moments. There is the sense that Ball, who wrote and directed the finale, is trying to tie up too many ends too quickly.
And then, something happens, and the finale picks up momentum, recovering its mordant sense of humor coupled with pathos. This is largely thanks to the rather wonderful ending-within-an-ending, of which we can promise: You'll be left with no unanswered questions.
The first episode may have answered the pesky little question of whether there's life after death. With the finale, avid "Six" followers get the answers to these conundrums -- is Keith pushing David to get "help" just an excuse for him to dump his high-maintenance partner? Will art school dropout Claire fly the coop? What will she do with her "deeply unhip" but deeply caring Republican beau, Ted? Will Ruth reconcile with George? Will Rico get rich or die trying? Just five years worth of big, juicy questions. And for that we thank you, Alan Ball.
Six Feet Under (75 minutes) airs Sunday at 9 on HBO.