At some point -- the middle of season three? -- I gave up on "Six Feet Under." It wasn't just that it sometimes felt like a muddle of hyperrealism and false, rushed melodrama. It was the dead people talking that really got to me. They're dead! Don't they ever shut up?
Every time the wise dead family patriarch, Nathaniel Fisher, appeared to give sensible if embittered advice to his kids, I was reminded of that awful dancing baby and the other excesses of "Ally McBeal." And the dream sequences of imagined behavior -- little snippets of people saying what they would never dare or imagining hyperbolic actions of people around them -- weren't just grating, they were frustrating. I wanted to throttle Claire or David, to tell them "Spit it out! This is a soap opera! Slap somebody!" It was hard to not feel cheated by the writers, who made the characters utter these thoughts just for us. It doesn't matter if we, the audience, hear these things. Action doesn't happen without interaction, and we're all the way out here, beyond the fourth wall.
The final season of "Six Feet Under," which begins airing Monday, starts out pacing fairly calmly through plot movements. The first few episodes have a surfeit of these incredibly annoying conversations with dead people and internal thought processes made visual for the viewer, sometimes even in the form of reality TV shows. The first episode, in a new low for the stylish show, even struggles with awkward, needless flashbacks, catching us up on elapsed months and the growth of matriarch Ruth's husband's craziness, the family re-gelling between alpha-son Nate and the magnificent, nearly tamed Brenda.
Things begin humdrum, though funeral home den mother Ruth Fisher Sibley is given plenty to do, which is super news. (Frances Conroy could read from an embalming manual for a full episode and I'd never complain.) But "Six Feet Under" at its worst has been a particularly dreary Bronte-meets-Harlequin novel, and the beginning of this season likewise revolves around couples and their dynamics. With everyone paired off -- though there may not be much permanence to any of these matches -- the available plotlines are about as captivating as, well, NBC's 2003 sitcom bomb "Coupling."
So it seems, at first, as if the most notable addition to the last season is a bar or two of new theme music, actually. Apparently a few more producer credits have extended the opening sequence by a few seconds -- ah, the bloat of success.
But then, almost midway through the season, the show becomes stellar, amazing and disturbing. It would be unfair to give anything away, but the mood is this: There's a reason that dogs wear those silly cones around their necks after surgery. As this final season gets going, the entire cast has been freed from some protective buffer, and they immediately begin to rip out their itchy stitches, blood flying everywhere.
And nothing they say is imagined or just for the viewer. Finally, everything is said out loud.
It turns out that through the first few episodes, situations have carefully been concocted; the narrative has been tended like a garden. Realism insists that eruptions must be preceded by motivation, thought and the brewing of turmoil. Brenda, for example, has lived every female archetype in the Big Book of Goddesses: She's been scary Kali, licentious Cleopatra, and begins this season as is an unlikely earth mother, Gaea. At last, uncomfortably but realistically, her roles are forced to cohere. Her therapized upbringing is both a torment and a solace as she fights with her complex nature: maternal, slatternly, harsh and empathetic.
If creator and head chef Alan Ball wanted this final season to leave us with a hole in our hearts after his show is departed, all signs are indicating that we'll be utterly bereft.