Always a delicate balancing act, HBO’s mortuary drama exhibited great storytelling agility before awkwardly stumbling last season, and its final flight of episodes don’t quite get things back on track. At its best a rumination about life, death, relationships and self-obsession, the initial hours feel (pardon the expression) lifeless before gaining some momentum in the fourth installment. Wherever that path leads, it’s clearly time for the Fisher family to plan for the hereafter, which will hopefully send the program and its fans off with memories of better days.
Mental illness plays a too-prominent role as the fifth season begins, with both Fisher women coddling men who are clinging tenuously to sanity. Matriarch Ruth (Frances Conroy) has become a caretaker for her husband George (James Cromwell), who is undergoing shock therapy, while daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose) has shacked up with the mercurial Billy (Jeremy Sisto), who, lacking artistic inspiration, drifts off his meds and toward the inevitable volatility that follows.
David (Michael C. Hall) and Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) decide to have a baby, triggering an intriguing debate over adoption vs. surrogacy while causing additional friction in their always-prickly union. Meanwhile, undertaking partner Federico (Freddy Rodriguez) is grappling with the single life but still harbors feelings for wife Vanessa (Justina Machado), who booted him after his fourth-season interlude with a stripper.
Even Nate (Peter Krause) can’t find peace now that he’s marrying Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), the woman he pined for in seasons past. Indeed, his ambivalence suggests that Nate is simply unable to sustain a relationship, making him considerably less sympathetic after a year in which he was barely tolerable.
Although the show boasts an extremely talented cast, its flights of fantasy and chats with the dead have begun to feel more forced and precious, the exception being an amusing riff on “The Bachelorette” as David fantasizes about surrogate mothers. And while the characters’ quirks generally add humanity to the series, there’s a fine line between flawed and so-screwed-up-it’s-not-worth-bothering, which at times seems to be the case.
The biggest problem, perhaps unavoidably, is that the Fishers are retracing earlier missteps, as the crisscrossing web of connections (siblings Nate and Claire, for example, dating siblings Brenda and Billy) starts to feel more like “All My Children” than the smart, pedigreed drama that the series once was.
Not every program, alas, is meant to run for a decade, and “Six Feet Under” looks to be one of those concepts that had only a few years worth of gas in the tank, making the decision to pull the plug an act of foresight. Thus far, the current season is nothing special, but that could and should change. After all, for a series about a funeral home to lack a proper sendoff would be a little too ironic, don’t you think?