Parlor Games

Putting the Fun in Funereal: Beginning its third season, HBO's Six Feet Under gets better and better.Photo: John P. Johnson

Baleful Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) doesn’t show up until the fifth hour of the third season of Six Feet Under, the HBO series in which dead bodies are the family business. Have we missed her? Not exactly. Too much fraught else is going on—mousetraps, penis studs, Eurotrash—for us to worry about Brenda, who can be counted on anyway to worry exclusively about herself. Besides, by sleeping around all over L.A., didn’t she forfeit our affection as well as her relationship with Nate Fisher (Peter Krause)?

On the other hand, Nate has already started denying that he secretly hates his brand-new life. So Brenda redux is what happens next—either a window of opportunity or a sword to fall on or a repetition compulsion. And why does Nate hate his life? I am about to spill some beans about the first fifteen minutes of the first hour of the new season, so if you need to remain invincibly ignorant, go stick your head in some other paragraph.

Nate’s dead. His brain exploded on the operating table while doctors were trying to remove the tumor he wouldn’t tell Brenda about. His R.I.P. appears at the start of the program just like those of the gangbangers and porn stars who have gone before, done in by swimming pools and cookie-dough mixers. While the rest of the Fishers prepare for his funeral, the ghost of Nate is beside himself, next door in an otherworldly chatroom, bickering with his equally dead father (Richard Jenkins). For this bickering, they have lots of leisure: “Hell,” says Dad, “you’ve got nothing but time, which doesn’t exist anyway.”

What does exist is a series of parallel universes, in one of which is another Nate who actually survived his brain surgery. So the dead Nate finds himself visiting the live one, as if dreaming himself, and what he sees is the next thirteen episodes.

“Death itself is always a surprise. Is everything else equally random, bad luck, or senseless happenstance?”

In a bed parallel to Brenda’s, this living Nate has knocked up Lisa, his former Seattle girlfriend (remember Lili Taylor, who made tofu meat loaf and talked to ants?), then married her, and is now the father of a 9-month-old baby girl with the Buddhist name Maya. His brother David (Michael C. Hall) has likewise domesticized, moving in with Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), the ex–motorcycle cop trolling for a neighborhood security firm (though they’re seeing a couples therapist about their “anger” and “doormat” issues). Sister Claire has graduated from high school to art school, where, when a grungy rock musician does her wrong, she promptly finds waiting for her, with open arms and ulterior motives, a fellow student (“If I can’t create art, I don’t want to live”) and a predatory instructor (“Art should make you sick”). And their mother, Ruth (Frances Conroy), has a new best friend (Kathy Bates), a smart-mouth shoplifter whom she meets in Topanga Canyon when they have to tie down Ruth’s sister, Sarah (Patricia Clarkson), to get her through her drug withdrawal.

While everybody seems to get at least one great line, my favorite so far is what the grungy rock musician says to Claire: “You’re not pathetic—you’re just sensitive.”

But Six Feet Under adds up to a lot more than the sum of its one-liners. When is your niche in life a place to be safe, or a prison, or a coffin? And have you really chosen to be there, or were you sentenced, or did it happen wholly by chance? Death itself is always a big surprise. Is everything else equally random, bad luck, or a senseless happenstance? Nate overhears his mother telling his wife that she, too, got married only because she was pregnant and chose not to have an abortion. “I don’t like knowing that my whole existence is an accident,” he tells his father’s ghost. Even worse, feeling trapped, he has begun to wonder if he’s only repeating his father’s mistakes. “I’m not you,” he insists. “Just keep telling yourself that,” says Dad. And what if the only way not to be trapped is not to have anything? Then again, what is it that we have?

“It wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t always fun, but it was always worth it,” says a longtime companion at a funeral for his lover, who died of a bleeding heart instead of AIDS. “My life is … complicated,” Brenda says to Nate. To which Nate, no longer anybody’s fool, replies: “Yeah? Whose isn’t?” In the meantime, while Lisa is circling “problem purchases” on the Visa bill and Jack Kerouac guns his engine beneath Nate’s window ready to Beat a Buddhist retreat, there is music, lots of it, ranging from the Old Europe repertoire of the gay men’s chorus to Puccini’s Turandot to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” to Elton John’s “Rocket Man”: “I’m not the man you think I am at all.” And Six Feet Under seems to me to have graduated from Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective to Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. There is no more satisfying or surprising series anywhere on television.

Whereas Showtime’s Queer As Folk, also returning for its third season, has apparently decided never to surprise us except with the usual body parts. Even though Justin has finally left Brian for Michelle Clunie, Robert Gant, Thea Gill, Gale Harold, Randy Harrison, Scott Lowell, Peter Paige, Hal Sparks, and the rest of their Pittsburgh gaymates, including Sharon Gless as Supermom, it’s more of the same: cruising and whining. You know that gay life has to be more interesting than it seems on Queer As Folk and Will & Grace. A couple of Sundays from now, when Six Feet Under stages an opera to say good-bye to a gay set designer, there is more heart and more brain in ten minutes than I’ve seen in two years of Queer As Folk.

Be grateful for Salem Witch Trials. There was no reason to expect a network miniseries on a lurid subject to be so shrewdly cast, smartly written, and subtly shot as this one has been, a shadow play deploying the gifted likes of Kirstie Alley, Sir Alan Bates, Henry Czerny, Rebecca De Mornay, Shirley MacLaine, Gloria Reuben, Jay O. Sanders, and Peter Ustinov in uptight Puritan Massachusetts in 1692. The hysteria familiar to us from our high-school history books and Arthur Miller’s Crucible gets its due, in the usual sinister hues. But there is as well an overlay of another agenda besides sex, religion, gender politics in a shame-based culture, and fear of abduction by Indians. The emphasis here is on family fortunes, sibling rivalry, real estate, and the seventeenth-century equivalent of zoning. It’s almost Marxist.

Kiss Me Kate (February 26; 8 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) is the “Great Performances” tape of the recent, wonderful Broadway revival, with Rachel York, Brent Barrett, the fabulous Nancy Anderson as Lois Lane, and the equally fabulous Cole Porter telling them all what to sing.

Profiles From the Front Line (February 27; 8 to 9 p.m.; ABC) is the first of six hours in which the Pentagon lets Jerry Bruckheimer interview members of the U.S. Special Operations forces on duty in terrorist-infested Central Asia. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a war.

Counterstrike (March 2; 8 to 10 p.m.; TBS) asks us to worry about a renegade terrorist faction of Taiwanese dissidents so determined to derail a peace agreement that they steal a submarine, hijack the Q.E. II, and threaten to blow up everybody after the usual kick-boxing. Rob Estes and Joe Lando aren’t enough to save the day; we also need martial artiste Rachel Blakely, a favorite of mine as the aristocratic bitch on the syndicated series The Lost World, but a stiff here.

Building the Great Pyramids (March 2; 9 to 10 p.m.; Discovery) brings a BBC documentary to American cable with a new narration but the same mesmerizing pictures and an overdue historical revision. It turns out the pyramids weren’t built by slave labor after all, but by Egyptians who were proud to be drafted into temporary service. Or so we now think, after 5,000 or so years.

Boomtown (March 2; 10 to 11 p.m.; NBC) returns with a strong hour called “Home Invasion,” starring Joe Spano, about barbaric killers who prey on families, with sexual assault followed by torture followed by mutilation. Even the stomachs of seen-it-all cops are turned.

The Trials of Henry Kissinger (March 3; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Sundance) is the American television premiere of Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki’s bill of indictment of the former secretary of State—a sort of Invitation to The Hague.

Six Feet Under
Sundays, starting March 2; 9 to 10 p.m.; HBO.

Queer As Folk
Sundays, starting March 2; 10 to 11 p.m.; Showtime.

Salem Witch Trials
Sunday and Tuesday, March 2 and 4; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS.

Parlor Games