June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Early on in the fourth season premiere of Six Feet Under, Lauren Ambrose’s Claire moans, ”I’m so sick of everything being so f — -ing awful all the time,” and I am inclined to agree. A formaldehyde fog has settled over ”Under” — it envelops you with a serenity that used to be unsettling (the very point of a series about a family of neurotic funeral-home inhabitants) but now seems more like smothering.

The discovery at the end of last season that Lili Taylor’s long-missing Lisa was dead provided Peter Krause’s Nate Fisher with some fine opportunities to grieve with unironic openheartedness — rare in the emotionally hermetic universe created by exec producer Alan Ball. But I should have learned by now that any ”Under” character who exposes a lot of raw feelings will eventually be reined in, even punished. Thus Rachel Griffiths’ Brenda, the free spirit who spiraled into sex addiction and substance abuse, is stuck in a 12-step-program subplot that sets up a rather too-coy affair with her neighbor, played by Justin Theroux (see page 111). And Mathew St. Patrick’s Keith, who last season was a volcano of spilling-over rage at his frustrating security job and rather passionless relationship with Nate’s brother, David (Michael C. Hall), now gets saddled with new employment — bodyguard to the stars, which makes for some warmed-over celeb jokes (never thought I’d say this, but: poor Cameron Diaz). He also, in a move that makes no sense given Keith’s history, puts himself back in the closet, pretending to ogle women so he can fit in with his hetero coworkers. Huh? This isn’t character development — it’s more like character cruelty.

But then, Ball likes to put his characters through cycles of suppression and release — he has ever since he wrote the Oscar-winning script for ”American Beauty.” Perhaps to remind us of this, he’s cast ”Beauty”’s Mena Suvari as a charismatic performance artist whose febrile creativity awakens Claire’s artistic impulses, inspiring her to start snapping self-consciously edgy photos again. One can never tell in ”Under” — but perhaps she may even feel an erotic attraction to Suvari’s post-punky poetry spouter. For Claire’s (and Ambrose’s) sake, I hope that eros blooms, because Ball’s newer characters, such as the creepy roomer Arthur (Rainn Wilson) and James Cromwell as the chilly new husband for Frances Conroy’s Ruth, certainly aren’t providing much dramatic momentum. At this rate, Ball is lucky his HBO colleague David Milch has snagged the phrase ”Deadwood,” or I’d be suggesting it as ”Six Feet Under”’s new alternate title.

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