"So much death," moans a mourner in the fourth-season premiere of HBO's "Six Feet Under." It's a lament that suggests the woman watches too much TV, or perhaps just too much "It's-not-TV-it's-HBO."
Death and success both haunt the grand old granddaddy of pay TV: "The Sopranos," HBO's dramatic superseries, has been a whack parade from the beginning. "Deadwood," the aptly titled, grittily grim western from David Milch, gives us an Old West where life isn't worth the proverbial plugged nickel, and a plugged nickel isn't worth a plugged peso. "Sex and the City" was a nonviolent smash for HBO, of course, but it's gone now, for sale on DVD, whereas HBO's tense, scary and uncompromised "The Wire" will be returning soon, and that's another show where death likes to do more than pop up and say "boo."
"Six Feet Under," back in all its black finery at 9 tonight, is, as the title more than just suggests, all about death. The Grim Reaper is a virtual recurrent character -- not some black-hooded spooky-pants out of an Ingmar Bergman movie, challenging poor suckers to futile games of badminton or miniature golf, but a relentless and coldly arbitrary force. Each episode opens with an unexpected demise (unexpected by the demised, not by us) of someone not usually related to the main characters in the story. But fate will bring together the living and the dead, because "Six Feet Under" is about a family that runs a funeral home, and the intense sense of mortality thus thrust upon them all.
To make matters worse, or in some cases better, the founding father of the establishment, who died in the first episode, keeps casually returning from the hereafter to have chats with those he left behind. As amiably played by Richard Jenkins, old Nathaniel Fisher seems to find death the equivalent of hanging out at a friendly corner bar where you can sit around as long as you want, run up a tab the size of the federal deficit and never get hassled or asked to leave.
Atypically, the preliminary expiration on tonight's season premiere does not dramatize a death that occurred in recent times. A young man named Bruno, tripping on LSD or some other hallucinogen, thinks he can fly until gravity intervenes and he plunges to his death. The requisite subsequent gravestone reads: "Bruno Baskerville Walsh, 1951 -- 1972." Huh? 1972? You'll have to wait around till the end of the show to understand this departure from tradition.
Among the regular characters, Nate Fisher, played by Peter Krause, is the nominal head of the family and a sort of long-suffering schlemiel on whom fate rarely smiles. Over the years, everything but the kitchen sink seems to have fallen on Nate's head; he had a brain tumor, a loony-toony girlfriend (who had an even loonier-toonier brother); he married a homely but spiritual sweetie who had a baby with him but then drowned at sea. Her corpse -- arriving in a body bag tonight -- has been nibbled upon for several days by sea creatures who saw it as the equivalent of a Twinkie from heaven.
Actually, Nate is looking fairly fit for a guy who was beaten to within two inches of his life in a bar brawl on last season's finale. Scarred on the outside, Nate seems to be glowing with a newfound inner peace, and key to that is his decision to get the heck out of the mortuary business, a move he wanted to make in the very first episode but was talked out of. Now he's come full circle, more or less, though first there is an argument to win with the parents of his wife, who want what's left of her cremated and stashed neatly in a drawer, as is the family tradition.
Lisa, the late Mrs. Fisher (played touchingly by Lili Taylor), didn't want to be cremated, she'd told Nate. "She just wanted to be put back in the earth somewhere -- no casket, nothing," Nate says. Lisa's mother, played with an iron jaw -- with an iron face -- by Veronica Cartwright, wants her darling daughter burned to bits. For, um, sentimental reasons.
Actually, burning sounds merciful when compared with listening to the ghastly song composed for and played at Lisa's funeral service.
The other characters who live in "Six Feet Under" have their own subplots to live through, including the likable, striving Federico Diaz, played by Freddy Rodriguez. He goes to confession out of guilt over having enjoyed a lap dance as a way of exorcising bad vibes stirred by a fight with the wife; something about his fascination with the red-light district suggests he may be turning into a sex addict. Nobody on a drama like this is permitted to be free of emotional disturbances.
Claire Fisher, the funeral family's heroically incorrigible daughter -- played with superb troublemaking moxie by Lauren Ambrose -- has a news flash for a former goofball boyfriend: She aborted the child conceived while they were "dating." She tries delivering the news with "Oh, by the way" nonchalance, but his reaction is more on the apocalyptic "What in hell are you saying?" side.
Wimpy and self-pitying David Fisher, given a peculiar dignity by the enterprising Michael C. Hall, remains oblivious to his good fortune in having, as a conjugal mate, the handsome and quietly virile Keith Charles (played with superhuman cool by Matthew St. Patrick), the least hung-up character on the premises. A former cop, Keith gets a job in the new season as a security guard to VIPs. His first assignment is to carry -- hold on to your hats now -- a velvet-lined case full of Cameron Diaz's bling-bling!
But Keith's days on the job already look a trifle numbered. As part of downtime small talk with fellow security guards, he has to go through the hypocrisy and indignity of making lewd and leering remarks about all the women who walk by. It's a chore for him on at least two levels.
Ruth Fisher, the droopy-faced widow of Nathaniel, has impulsively remarried, but it may not be a good fit. Ruth is played with eerie, angsty tension by Frances Conroy, who looks something like the dour and diminutive FBI agent who bullied poor Adriana on "The Sopranos." Loony-toonish Brenda Chenowith, played by Rachel Griffiths, has returned after a kind of sabbatical to make life miserable again for Nate, though there's no sign yet of her deliriously disturbed brother Billy, played by the versatile and fascinating Jeremy Sisto. An HBO spokesman says be patient, Sisto may be back.
Next week's episode ends with Nate announcing his decision to quit the funeral biz. He's "not cut out for it," he says, and he can no longer kid himself into believing "that anything we say or do actually helps anybody." His personal turmoil is upstaged by a helluva visual shocker; the plumbing backs up to a monstrous degree and all three floors of the building -- the morgue in the basement, the funeral home on the main floor, the living quarters above -- are soon awash in spewing blood.
Claire grabs her camera and marvels at the striking conceptual similarity to the trailer for Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." Claire can be wonderfully nonjudgmental about anything that makes a good photograph.
Sometimes the way people die in the show's prefatory scenes is hideously tragic but other times, as in the opener to Episode 4, it can be entertainingly ridiculous, as if somebody, somewhere, liked to mix practical jokes in with the excruciating ordeals. And yet every death could be said to have both its cruelly amusing side and its -- well, its cruelly cruel side. For all that, writer-producer Alan Ball sometimes seems to be saying, life can still be infinitely crueler.
America is more haunted than usual by death right now: the continuing casualties in Iraq and, of course, the death of Ronald Reagan, adored 40th president and a man with an almost childlike belief in the eventual triumph of good over evil. "Six Feet Under" is the perfect drama for a new age of grim, fatalistic resignation.
One has to wonder what this show's last episode will be like. Armageddon? The Book of Revelation come horribly and hideously true? A dance of life like the one that ended Fellini's profoundly prankish "81/2" or the one that unforgettably enlivens "Fiddler on the Roof" ("To Life!" Or, failing that, "To Death!")? Not that we're eager for that finale to come anytime soon. The characters are too fascinating, the acting too hypnotically quixotic and the scripts (supervised by Ball) too darkly adventurous for anyone to wish "Six Feet Under" an early grave -- except in the sense that it's early in the new season, and already things are pretty darn grave indeed.