Myth America

Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose, Peter Krause, and one of the Tosh twins look on the bright side.Photo: John P. Johnson

Connoisseurs of the bizarre kibosh will especially prize the first few minutes of the second hour of the fourth season of Six Feet Under (Sundays, starting June 13; 9 to 10 p.m.; HBO). A pickup truck hits a bump in the road, unleashing its freight of inflatable dolls. These pornographic Twinkies rise into the Southern California sky, topsy-turvy and akimbo, a flock of flesh tones. A middle-aged woman, a true believer, stops and gets out of her car, in the middle of the highway, to admire and embrace this pink Assumption. She thinks what she sees is the Rapture; she expects to levitate herself. Instead, of course, she is run down, sideswiped, and winds up with a tag on her toe in the Fisher-family funeral home.

We know by now that these fateful peculiarities, right after the credits, need not necessarily signify. The Fishers themselves are so dysfunctional that the bodies piling up around them as often as not are collateral damage. Still, besides being a lot more interesting than the last two movies of Lars von Trier combined, this obscene Rapture ranks with my favorite Six Feet Under sudden death, from the first season, when a roach exterminator was dismembered by a giant dough-mixing machine. I admit that there were times during the third season (Claire’s abortion, Keith’s therapy) when I longed for the insouciance of the first one, with its gangbangers, porn stars, and missing feet. The series then took a darker turn, toward Sigmund Freud and Samuel Beckett, not to mention Jack Kerouac, Elton John, brain tumors, penis studs, psychobabble, Eurotrash, and people who talked to ants.

On the other foot, last season included the best line so far in any TV series since Mr. Peepers, when the grunge musician assured Claire, “You’re not pathetic—you’re just sensitive.”

“Brenda’s mother seems to have metastasized from carnivorous to cannibalistic.”

Okay. Except for a couple of telephone calls from the great beyond and the look in the eyes of an anxious dog, Lisa (Lili Taylor) is very dead. And so seems to be the idea of parallel universes, in one of which, instead of marrying Lisa, Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) actually died on the operating table. Which leaves us with the name of their baby daughter, Maya, as the only reminder of last season’s chain-links on the karmic wheel of the Buddha cycle. Never mind what will happen to Nate among the mothers at Maya’s playgroup. Or the surprise that awaits his brother, David (Michael C. Hall), in the bloody basement, with the studly plumber. Or why the mortician trainee Arthur (Rainn Wilson) packs up and leaves town, even though he’s not the one sending toy dump trucks full of excrement to tiresome George (James Cromwell), the geology professor newly married to Ruth (Frances Conroy)—the Fisher matriarch who has grown up from a tongue-tied widow who rented movies like Runaway Bride into some kind of Ixtab, a goddess of ropes, snares, and sexual hanging.

Never mind, in other words, the men. For the first month of the fourth season, the women take over. Claire (Lauren Ambrose), while trying to outgrow her Nan Goldin stage as a photographer, is astonished to learn from the lesbian poet Edie (Mena Suvari) that she may never have experienced a genuine orgasm, and determines to rectify this error. Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) has a new boyfriend (Justin Theroux), and even though she says she wants “normal sex,” at least while she’s studying to be a therapist, almost immediately she has him manacled to the bedposts and wishes he were Nate. Brenda’s mother, Margaret (Joanna Cassidy), the shrink who chortled at her husband’s funeral, seems to have metastasized beyond carnivorous to cannibalistic. Even Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), in a new job as a celebrity bodyguard, has been forced back into the closet by the devouring sexuality of his glam client Celeste (Michelle Trachtenberg), a Britney-Beyoncé composite who will stupefy the known world in a TV interview with Ellen DeGeneres (who is playing her frisky dolphin self but seems, in this context, as Campfire Girl–ish as Pippi Longstocking.)

As usual, a mixed grill of directors (Dan Attias, Michael Cuesta, Jeremy Podeswa), writers (Craig Wright, Rick Cleveland, Jill Soloway, executive producer Alan Ball), and guest stars (Kathy Bates, Patricia Clarkson, Veronica Cartwright) conspire in their variety to keep us off-balance week to creepy week. They seem not so much afraid of death as they are of dying only to find out that all their performance and pretension, their art and artifice, has been for naught; that their umbrella turned into a lightning rod and their garage sale into a bonfire of the vanities anyway; that whether or not they have behaved honorably, they will still go up like inflated dolls into an empty sky or down like geologists and plumbers into a black hole. Even the ghosts—especially the ghosts—are freaked. Not since Northern Exposure has a prime-time series made such generous room for us to dream upon the big and scary picture: to embrace the vocabulary of myths, from golden eggs to magic flutes, demon brides and webbed feet, forbidden doors and cloven hooves, Circe, Calypso, and Rumpelstiltskin.

Whether we come to care enough about the young prosecutors (Billy Burke and Jeff Hephner) and the young defense attorneys (Anna Friel and Shalom Harlow) to put up with a brand-new cast of every other character each week in the new Tom Fontana–Barry Levinson anthology series, The Jury (Tuesdays, starting June 8; 9 to 10 p.m.; Fox), will be decided around Bastille Day. Already I could live without the bailiff. But we will spend most of our time inside the locked room where amateurs—citizens summoned to New York City jury duty because they pay real-estate taxes and vote—try to make justice out of their own experience, what they see on television, what a judge told them or the lawyers fudged, how their fellow conscripts heard the testimony, plus instinct, intelligence, fatigue, and principle. Like all jury members, they also misbehave, talking about the case when they are told not to.

The gimmick here, a sort of Columbo in reverse, is that we find out who did what to whom only after the jump cuts, flashbacks, character flaws, temper tantrums, and the verdict itself. Surprise! And no, I won’t tell you who on the rooftop shot the gun that killed the sleeping boy, nor whether the death of a teenage girl in a honeymoon suite was really a suicide. I will tell you that The Jury is the kind of TV Tom Fontana was born to create. The best of Homicide (and of Oz) was always indoors, in a small room with a handheld Chekhov. You may remember the Emmy-winning episode of Homicide in which Andre Braugher and Kyle Secor tried to make Moses Gunn confess to the strangulation and disemboweling of an 11-year-old girl. In the dirty light and appalling intimacy of a single claustrophobic room, among library books, diaries, junk food, pornographic crime-scene snapshots, and a single black overflowing ashtray, with a whoosh of wind sound like some dread blowing in from empty Gobi spaces, these men in their cop torque and perp twist were as nervous as the camera, as if their black coffee were full of spiders and amphetamines. So it also goes on The Jury, as if out of adversarial styles, recondite legalisms, temperamental tics, and what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences,” ordinary men and women could arrive at a perfect knowledge of final things.

Myth America