The Big Sleep

Claire, the only Fisher who’s still in high school, has a point: “I know that stealing a foot is weird, but living in a house where a foot is available to be stolen is weird, too.” For 50 years, the Fishers have been in the funeral business, bringing back bodies from the L.A. County morgue, embalming and beautifying the remains with “cosmetic putty” to achieve a “velvety appearance of actual living tissue,” planting the dressed-up corpse in a flower box, throwing a memorial service (with light classical music) for those needing to say good-bye, and then covering up their own art in Astroturf. Death, the ultimate dysfunction, is the dismal family trade. If Eugene O’Neill had been more like Jules Feiffer or Dennis Potter, Six Feet Under is what he might have written about the Fishers. But he wasn’t – and he’s dead, too. So Alan Ball follows up his screenplay for American Beauty by executive-producing thirteen hours of mordant mortuary humor.

While Claire (Lauren Ambrose), who has been acting out ever since her father (Richard Jenkins) was killed by a bus, may have stolen the foot from the sack of body parts left over after the baker was accidentally dismembered by a giant machine for mixing dough, she didn’t set the fire that burned down the house across the street where a monopolistic chain of franchise funerary services had intended to build a crematory to drive the small-fry Fishers out of business. Which leaves her older brother Nate (Peter Krause) wondering if his strange new lady love, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), is actually the arsonist, especially after he’s read her cult best-seller and met her crazy psychiatrist parents, who are technical advisers on a cable-TV serial-killer movie.

Everyone else is too frazzled keeping secrets to have found the time for incendiary action. David (Michael C. Hall), for instance, the younger Fisher brother who stayed home to stir urns while Nate ran off to push organic produce in Seattle, is deep in the closet about his relationship with Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), an L.A. cop who is black and gay. Ruth (Frances Conroy), the suddenly widowed mother of them all, is so guilt-stricken about the affair she’s been having with a hairdresser (Ed Begley Jr.) that she can barely manage to rearrange the kitchen cupboards and rent a video of The Runaway Bride. Even dear dead sadistic dad, who shows up to kibitz each of his kids in ghostly seriatim, turns out to have had a secret room where he apparently played cards, smoked pot, listened to jazz, and ogled nude photographs of his own wife. And I’d rather not discuss Brenda’s creepy brother Billy (Jeremy Sisto), who toys with Claire’s heart as if it were a foot.

Each of the six installments of Six Feet Under that I’ve seen opens, after tagged toes and the flapping of a symbolic vulture, with a bizarre death (by bus, dough mixer, swimming pool). Sometimes there are fake TV commercials (for cosmetic putty or deluxe caskets). In each, not only do these ungrateful dead (a scam artist, a gang leader, a porn star) still have something to say, but they will get up from their gurneys to say it. Nor are dreams and fantasies safely to be distinguished from flashbacks and prophetic visions. Moreover, the characters who are supposed to be alive are often surprised to hear their own darkest thoughts popping out of the mouths of the humdrum people they happen to be talking to in what they imagine to be safe banalities, between gobbles of “hydroponic raspberries grown by a guy named Gunther who once slept with Stevie Nicks.”

Besides Ball, Laurence Andries, Rick Cleveland, Bruce Eric Kaplan, Kate Robin, Christian Taylor, and Christian Williams have written episodes for the series. Besides Ball, Miguel Arteta, Kathy Bates, Lisa Cholodenko, Allen Coulter, Michael Engler, Rodrigo García, Jim McBride, and John Patterson have directed these episodes. The likes of Joanna Cassidy, Terence Knox, and Bill Cobbs show up as guest stars. The fourth hour – in which a Chicano gang-banger is gunned down at a pay telephone in a black neighborhood, just in time to advise poor David on how to cease being a “bitch,” while also showcasing the artistic talents of Freddy Rodríguez, who learned to embalm without a gang in Puerto Rico – is so far my favorite. But Peter Krause, from the late lamented Sports Night, is a joy throughout as the prodigal son who comes home with all the appropriate existential questions. And as Brenda, with the brilliant mind, the dirty mouth, and a mysterious tattoo, Rachel Griffiths, who was amazing enough in Hilary and Jackie, is fabulous here beyond the speed of light.

“Life is wasted on the living,” says the ghost of Richard Jenkins. But who else is there? The real problem for every unburied body in Six Feet Under is that the faster we run away from death, the closer and quicker we get there.

Two movies not to be missed: Absolute Hell is a BBC remake of Rodney Ackland’s The Pink Room (1952), a “Rose-Colored Spectacle” with Dame Judi Dench as the proprietor of a London after-hours club, La Vie en Rose, for lost gay souls in the immediate aftermath of World War II, a Damascus Gate and demimonde for the semi-damned. Through these Edwardian portals, to drink and smoke and queen and butch, come blocked novelists, Fleet Street flotsam, campground movie directors, over-the-hill flappers, rootless refugees, and even American soldiers on their way to costume balls and needing a bottle to buy their way in. The last thing these desperately unhappy people want to see, on the eve of the election of a Labour government, are photographs of the Nazi “horror camps.” It’s as if Hogarth had illustrated the diaries of Ned Rorem… . Stanley’s Gig stars William Sanderson as a musician whose greatest ambition is to play the ukulele on a cruise ship. He must settle instead for four afternoons a week as a music-making “recreational therapist” in a nursing home for the elderly, where he discovers Marla Gibbs, who used to be a forties jazz chanteuse but now won’t even talk to anybody. With the help of his unlikely gal pal, Faye Dunaway, and the nostalgia-fueled assistance of Paul Benjamin, who loved the singer way back when, Sanderson’s Stanley gets Gibbs out of her wheelchair, on her feet, and behind a microphone again – if not for long, as least long enough for us to hear some ukulele jazz so remarkably affecting and so sweet-souled that it might even have cheered up the unbrave fugitives in Dame Judi’s La Vie en Rose.TV Notes

Big Mama (may 30; 7:30 to 8:10 p.m.; Cinemax) is a Reel Life documentary short on an 89-year-old grandmother’s struggle against all odds to raise her orphaned 9-year-old grandson in South Central Los Angeles. Not only did the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services take Walter away from Viola Dees and dump him in a foster home, but it also tried to block the release of what we are seeing, from first-time filmmaker Tracy Seretean.

Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days (June 1; 8 to 10 p.m.; AMC) rehashes a familiar story but adds a 37-minute reconstruction of what’s left of the footage from Monroe’s last, unfinished film, Something’s Got to Give, from which she was fired by the studio, plus interviews with co-star Cyd Charisse and screenwriter Walter Bernstein.

Boss of Bosses (June 3; 8 to 10 p.m.; TNT) would like us to believe that Paul Castellano, after the Gambino-family godfather had been responsible for maybe 24 murders but before he was gunned down by John Gotti’s thugs in front of Sparks Steak House in 1984, wanted to turn La Cosa Nostra into a legit business. Chazz Palminteri stars.

The Impressionists (June 3, 9 to 11 p.m., and June 4, 8 to 10 p.m.; A&E) is both a gorgeous and an intelligent gloss on the French artists of the late nineteenth century who painted, as it were, in the moment – what, that instant, they saw and felt. Lavish illustrations, art-historian sound bites, and inside info from letters, diaries, and such, on Degas, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, and Renoir.

Snap Decision (June 4; 9 to 11 p.m.; Lifetime) stars Mare Winningham as a young widow and mother and Felicity Huffman as her cancer-surviving best friend who takes many pictures of her several children in semi-naked play, the negatives of which are turned over by a photo lab to prosecutors who accuse Felicity of pornography-making and try to take Mare’s kids away. A true and truly appalling story about sleazy people who saw what they wanted to until a decent judge lost his patience and blew a whistle.

Six Feet Under
Sundays, 10 to 11 p.m., HBO.
Absolute Hell
Friday, June 1, 9 to 11 p.m., PBS.
Stanley’s Gig
Sunday, June 3, 7 to 8:30 p.m., Starz! Family.

The Big Sleep