Heading into its third season, “Six Feet Under” finally gets a chance to air away from the wake of “The Sopranos” or “Sex and the City.” Those HBO shows came to define appointment television over the last several seasons and “Six Feet Under” — the saga of the Fisher family and their mortuary in Los Angeles — played like a quirky cousin that lacked the over-the-top drama or the titillating humor of its network mates. Season three will draw a fair amount of casual viewership — it may well be the most talked-about series that many people haven’t seen — and although its glacial pace may turn off some, the crispness of the writing and acting should get viewers to return. The six Emmy wins from last season are probably just the start of something that will yield bigger returns come the next award season.
Although it is a serial soap opera at heart, newcomers will settle easily into these curious lives with no problems in the first episode. Nate (Peter Krause) comes out of brain surgery after venturing eerily close to the bright white light of death, his focus squarely on new baby Maya and her mother, Lisa (Lili Taylor). They live in the home of Lisa’s boss, Carol (Catherine O’Hara), an egomaniacal Hollywood producer; Lisa is mostly a chef.
Nate has brought in Federico (Freddy Rodriguez) as a partner at the funeral home, renaming it Fisher & Diaz; almost abruptly, Diaz is questioning the Fishers about his responsibilities and, in the second episode, the morality of handling services for an evildoer.
David Fisher (Michael C. Hall), meanwhile, has decided to commit to his relationship with security guard Keith (Mathew St. Patrick). They see a counselor and, more than any other relationship on the show, theirs is split open and dissected. Mother Ruth (Frances Conroy) can’t get enough of Maya, though her willingness to care for the baby stems just as much from her loneliness and isolation as her maternal instincts.
Claire (Lauren Ambrose), sister of David and Nate, believes she has found her calling at art school, speed-drawing male nudes and attempting to pencil the perfect circle; a rock guitarist quickly puts her under his amorous spell, leaving her art future in doubt.
First episode is effective like a snapshot — each character’s mental milieu is captured with clarity. This is achieved mostly through the precise writing of show creator Alan Ball, whose dialogue is a natural flow of everyday, mundane observations and concerns. Even after the second episode goes for a shock beginning — borrowing a subplot seen earlier this season on NBC’s terrif “Boomtown” — it settles into familiar turf wars any family that forces itself to be so intertwined is bound to face.
“Six Feet Under” operates on a principle “The Practice” first established: Fill the landscape with no wholly likable characters. There’s anger, manipulation and jealousy bubbling under in nearly every situation and it’s a tribute to these actors that they carry it all off so thoroughly. And in episode two, Kathy Bates turns in a wonderful portrayal of Bettina, a friend of Ruth’s sister Sarah (Patricia Clarkson), who is attempting to kick her Vicodin habit.
The camerawork of Alan Caso and production designer Suzuki Ingerslev give the show one of the most distinctive looks on television, beginning with the great opening credits and Thomas Newman’s Grammy-winning theme. Background music continues to be the cream of the crop, from Britpop bands to Dave Alvin, giving the show an added cinematic texture.