In the season premiere of ''Six Feet Under,'' the characters use twisted humor to confront death, self-doubt, and mental illness
Peter Krause, Six Feet Under
Credit: Six Feet Under: John P. Johnson

A very ”Six Feet Under” wedding

For a show that’s set in a funeral home and starts every episode with an elaborately staged death scene, Six Feet Under has always been surprisingly funny. Think about it: In four seasons, the Fisher clan has faced the untimely deaths of Nathaniel Sr. and Lisa, random acts of violence (David’s kidnapping, Nate’s bar brawl), and the possibility of financial ruin (the Kroehner takeover threat), but that hasn’t kept the characters from spouting zingers that would make Bree Van de Kamp green with envy.

And that’s why, although the series’ fifth (and final) season premiere was unrelentingly bleak, I’m confident it marks a solid step in the right direction after a lackluster season 4.

Indeed, even the episode’s cruelest twist — having the long-suffering Brenda endure a miscarriage two days before her wedding — allowed the show’s writing staff to do what it does best: use twisted humor to help its characters and its viewers bear the unbearable. Certainly, if any couple on the show deserved a break from pain and humiliation, it was Nate and Brenda: Going into the season, I was praying they’d get a chance to live like a (relatively) normal couple, maybe duke it out over the choice of day care for Maya, or square off over how to best divvy up the household chores. But you somehow knew that Brenda’s endearing pregnancy banter was just too cheerful for the Six Feet Under universe. And having experienced her prematernal glow made the moment of realization — waking from a nightmare in a pool of blood — all the more sickening.

Amazingly enough, though, it was Brenda, and not Nate, who got back in stride with the first post-miscarriage punch line. Sitting on the couch and lamenting her lot in life, Brenda punctuated the observation that her last night as a single woman was somehow less than she’d imagined with a priceless question: ”Where’s the stripper?”

Anyone who’s suffered great loss knows that sometimes the only way to go on living is to crack a joke — no matter how badly it hurts. But what shocked me even more than Brenda’s teeth-clenched, Vicodin-fueled humor was the tender (yet surprisingly in-character) reaction of her narcissistic mother, Margaret. I’m still kind of reeling that an Ab Fab-esque line like ”More women have miscarried than have masturbated with a dildo” could come off as poignant, but therein lies the beauty of Six Feet Under. And the fact that Margaret — who’s always a welcome gust of toxic air but seldom more than a cartoon cutout — became an actual human being 52 episodes into the series bodes well for what’s yet to come.

Of course, this isn’t to say I bought everything that came out of Nate and Brenda’s mouths. I understand the couple’s heartbreak, but their wedding explosions — complete with Brenda’s ”I’m not worthy of happiness” spiel and Nate’s alarming decision not to mourn the miscarriage — didn’t just feel like steps backward for the characters; they felt preposterously unreal. Seriously, after overcoming her creepy brother issues with Billy, reclaiming her relationship with Nate, and obtaining her psychology degree, we’re supposed to believe Brenda is back on emotional square one? What next? Should we expect to see her groping strangers in the men’s department at Neiman Marcus? And after raising Maya to functional (albeit nonverbal) toddler status, could Nate really be that out of touch (even momentarily) about his own grief over his fiancée’s miscarriage?

Fortunately, the not-quite-happy couple was stumbling toward a bearable future by episode’s end. Too bad we can’t say the same for Ruth and George. I never quite believed Ruth’s sudden infatuation with (and decision to marry) the nutty professor, and now apparently, neither does Ruth herself. Suddenly faced with the prospect of caring for a mentally deteriorating man whom she barely knows — and with whom her brief marriage has been anything but blissful — Ruth has turned into a cranky, resentful woman, and realistically so. While Ruth’s sexual rediscovery has been played for laughs in the past, her dating advice to Federico — ”try not to be blinded by lust if you can” — rang all too solemn only hours later, as Ruth realized her husband wasn’t even sure how to get from their front door to their bedroom.

The sight of George undergoing electroshock grabbed the silver in the episode’s Uncomfortable Olympics, and while I kind of long to see Ruth run free with gal pal Bettina (O, Kathy Bates, where art thou?), Mama Fisher’s current plight poses a juicy moral dilemma: Does she continue to care for a failing man she may not even love, or does she abandon him in his time of need and salvage her own happiness in the process?

Either way, the show’s writers could let her relax a little with David and Keith, whose snappy repartee might sound natural on Will & Grace — if that sitcom actually contained three-dimensional characters. Witness David’s opinion about hiring a surrogate mother: ”I can’t just rent out some woman’s uterus like a storage locker.” Or Keith’s fear of fathering an attractive daughter: ”I’m not having some 12-year-old hottie running around Sunset Boulevard with her ass crack showing!” But the once troubled gay couple is far from mere comic relief; Keith’s passing dinner-party comment that his partner thinks he doesn’t ”deserve to have what everyone else has” proves their adoption process is certain to be as fraught with drama as it is with guffaw-worthy quips. And really, what Six Feet Under fan would have it any other way?

What do you think? Is the worst over for Nate and Brenda? Will Ruth stick it out with George — and should she? And when will the creepy Claire-Billy combo come to its inevitable end?

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