Nate's definitely getting sicker, notes Nancy Miller. But will the show let its lead character go ''Six Feet Under''?
Lili Taylor, Peter Krause, ...

Is Nate going to die?

For those who chose to watch the stiffs in action on ”Six Feet Under” rather than the ones with a rigor mortis-like vice grip on an Oscar statuette, Sunday’s episode started off with plenty of promise. In a rare case of a Fisher and Son’s client dying of natural causes, a tour-bus loving geezer buys his final ticket to the highway to heaven. It’s his fear of flying (even postmortem, according to the old man’s kooky kids, who insist he travel by car), that gets this episode off the ground. Nate invites Claire to fly up to Seattle and U-haul the man home — giving the surly teen a chance for some distance from her ex-beau.

Nate also wants to pick up a few things in his former hometown, especially his amorous ex-roommate, played by Lily Taylor. Taylor, of course, is an actress who could be nominated for Most Underused Talent. Unfortunately, this also would include her role here. As Nate’s adoring and eccentric New Age former roomie (she doesn’t go to the movies because celluloid is made from gelatin, which is derived from horse hooves) Taylor is a one-dimensional version of the lovesick guitar-strumming goofball Corey she played in ”Say Anything.” That is, if the character from ”Say Anything” got over the heartbreak of Joe by spending the last 13 years popping Zoloft and talking to ants.

“”Six Feet Under”’s creators deserve credit for drawing from the quirky, underutilized (and probably endless) pool of actors for cameos, but once in place, they don’t seem to know what to do with them. Both Taylor’s and last week’s appearance by Mare Winningham (as a widowed psychic) lack oomph and purpose; the actors stand around smiling like nervous guests at a party poised for the few lines they get to say. This is a shame in Taylor’s case, because her character has major potential: Not only were she and Nate (as Claire delicately phrases it) ”f— buddies” back in Seattle, but Taylor drops the news that she was recently offered a job in L.A. If the writers wouldn’t tack on so much wacky, Taylor would make the topsy-turvy relationship between Nate and Brenda all the meatier.

The peak moment this time around is Nate’s miniseizure, which bears such unfortunate symptons as smelling imaginary rotten eggs, talking like a confused Porky Pig, and losing your lunch before you’ve even had a chance to order it. While Nate’s deteriorating condition might generate more gasps per episode than any other of the numerous plots, my brain can’t seem to wrap around this question: What are the stakes? Typically, the big stake would be, um, death. But unlike with ”The Sopranos,” where leading cast members get bada-pinged for looking at Tony the wrong way, ”Six Feet” isn’t going to knock off Nate. And as an actor who’s still making a name for himself, Peter Krause ain’t looking to get killed.

Meanwhile — and maybe it’s a nod to Sissy Spacek’s meltdown in ”In the Bedroom” — the moms of ”Six Feet Under” have officially lost their grip. For the better, the MIA status of Keith’s sister is bringing Keith and David closer together. For the worse, there’s Ruth’s cold cult-calling to former friends and loved ones in her newly acquired, totally terrifying ”Carol Channing on Ecstasy” voice. And for the worst of the worst, Brenda’s screw-loose mother tries to give the Fisher boys more business by going Jerry Springer on the blond who’s fooling around on her husband — all while Brenda cringes in the car. Is it any wonder that Brenda’s a wreck? And was that scene between Brenda and her prostitute client a throwaway, or is she screwed up enough to drop her shiatsu practice to become a belle du jour? It seems one way or another, Nate is destined to lose his mind.

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