The show takes a turn for the raunchy. But Nancy Miller wonders if the graphic sex scenes in this episode have pushed ''Under'' over the top
Lauren Ambrose

The show takes a turn for the raunchy

”It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” The cable channel’s credo suggests that it offers what the broadcast nets do not: shows that are savvier, smarter, and sexier. Well, judging by Sunday’s episode, HBO subscribers are getting their money shot’s worth.

It all began with Jeffrey Marc Shapiro (1963-2001), the poor stiff whose demise showed what can happen when one gets too bored with one’s sex life and too creative with a belt buckle, a lemon, and a home gym. This disturbing scene of an ill-fated auto-erotic asphyxiant who lost it all for some bad porn created the overall tone for a disturbing show.

Intentionally bad porn, it turns out; the XXX-rated bit was written by producer/creator Alan Ball and shot by the ”Six Feet” crew specifically for the scene. Ball may have learned this handy new skill from personal experience, as his film ”American Beauty” spawned a skin flick called ”American Booty.” Apparently, rose petals are the only thing those two have in common.

But what the new scene had in common with the two other key moments in the episode was an unexpected jolt of graphic sexual content that the ”Six Feet Under” audience may not be ready for. Or at least I wasn’t.

It’s not necessarily prudery that made the scenes with Federico (Freddy Rodriguez) discovering his cousin with another man and Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) having a dirty truck driver fantasy jarring, as we’ve seen plenty of things equally graphic on HBO’s other dramas ”The Sopranos,” ”Sex and the City,” and ”Oz.”

But on those shows, you know what to expect: ”Sopranos” = Violence. ”Sex and the City” = Sex, and ”Oz” = Violence and Sex. ”Six Feet Under”? Well, you know you’ll get dead people — but even more of the attraction is the edge, the cleverness, the instantaneous flip-flop between the deadpan and the heartfelt. Maybe that’s why this episode, while powerful, felt gratuitous — particularly when filtered through ”Six Feet”’s darker stylings.

To the show’s credit, the scene where one might have expected the most sex turned out to be charming and innocent. Claire’s (Lauren Ambrose) introduction to her aunt’s pagan rituals (à la Ginsburg) left the poor kid howling. Luckily she met Toby (Stark Sands), a straight and thoughtful 19-year-old whose interest in her was sincere. And here we saw for the first time just how damaged Claire has become from her relationship with Gabe. To her, boys want only one thing, and she seemed ready to provide it. That’s why her shock when Toby just wanted her phone number was poignant — already, at 16, she seems bitter beyond her years. (Let’s hope they bring Toby back.)

But the even greater shock for Claire was the realization that her mother, Ruth, (Frances Conroy) is a far more complex and lonely soul than she is, and that this insight caused her to feel a new emotion: sympathy. ”You know, I think she hides inside of herself because she’s so afraid we’ll reject her,” Aunt Sarah said to Claire. ”So let’s don’t.” Then in another great mother/daughter closing scene, Claire watched Mom singing in her timid, melancholic Joni Mitchell voice. Talk about seeing life from both sides now….

What do you think will happen between Claire and her mom?

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