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Where there's death, there's soap

Where there’s death, there’s soap — And there was no shortage of sudsy plots in last night’s episode; but Nancy Miller isn’t crying about it

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Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, ...
Six Feet Under: Larry Watson

Where there’s death, there’s soap

When someone recently referred to his ”Six Feet Under” as a ”soap opera for freaks,” creator Alan Ball agreed, describing his Golden Globe-winning drama as ”’Knots Landing’ set in a funeral home.” Considering that the latest episode kicks the bucket off with a soap-style hospital deathbed scene, then shoots one rapid-fire plotline after another (including a psychic widow, a double-crossing girlfriend, and a trigger-happy teen), then Ball’s description is, if you will pardon the expression, dead on. Sure, in terms of quality and emotional reach, ”Six Feet Under” is miles away from ”Knots” or ”Dallas” or ”Dynasty.” Yet it seems particularly sudsy this time around, especially when writer Kate Robin injects some much-needed Joan Collins feistiness into the profound moments of the Fisher family women.

Before we break out the big guns and talk about Ruth and Claire Fisher, let’s begin with Nate’s girlfriend Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). Were this really a soap opera, we might swear that the real Brenda, the one who desperately wanted to marry Nate (Peter Krause) last season, has been abducted and replaced with an evil twin. Nate might fear dying from his brain condition, but in this episode, it’s his sex life that needs life support. After seven months (if you’re counting), Brenda gives him half-hearted assurances that her sapped interest is just par for the intercourse, and she delivers her theory of the ”ebb and flow” of sexual attraction with some of the show’s best lines:

”It’s just a normal ebb,” Brenda says, defining her rejection of his advances with a shrug.

”How long does a normal ebb last?” wonders the exasperated Nate.

I don’t know,” smirks Brenda. ”But I think THAT’S the kind of question that prolongs the standard ebb.”

Later, when Brenda flirts with the handsome tax accountant (appropriately played, in keeping with the soap theme, by ex-”Melrose Place” hunk Grant Show) her casual adeptness at lying to Nate is chilling — and thrilling, since we don’t know what (or who) is next. (Remember the psychic’s vision: Brenda might get pregnant with his baby in the future.)

Though their lives rarely overlap, both Fisher mother Ruth (Frances Conroy) and her daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose) have one thing in common: They’re often brushed off by the Fisher boys as the two brothers harrumph around obsessively reconfiguring the family biz. In this episode, however, Ruth and Claire each experience life-changing moments with a signature ”Six Feet” mix of hilarity and horror.

The humor comes when Ruth goes back to the self-actualizing seminar called the Plan. This vaguely cultlike forum relies on so many home-repair metaphors they might bow to Bob Vila as a deity. Nearly pummeled with tough love by a self-help bully, the buried… with children Mrs. Fisher channels fellow HBOster Tony Soprano and KO’s the crowd by using the F-word 10 times, scoring a win with a no-holds-barred rant against everyone in her life, including her legless grandmother and the guy next to her who wouldn’t let her get a Snickers. Alexis and Crystal ain’t got nothing on Ruth.

But it’s 16-year-old Claire’s latest run-in with her on-the-lam loser boyfriend that gives the episode its heart stopper (and Ambrose her best performance yet). Like your average soap heroine, the girl can’t help loving bad boy Gabe (Eric Balfour). But there are limits. The two have an intense showdown after Gabe fires at a hapless driver (note the foreshadowing: Earlier, Claire glumly watches Sissy Spacek watching Martin Sheen shoot ’em up in ”Badlands”). The confrontation is brilliantly acted by Ambrose and Balfour, who have fantastic chemistry together. Which is unfortunate, since this episode seals Gabe’s doom, but it also gives ”Six Feet Under” its most dramatic scene of the season.