On ''Six Feet Under,'' Brenda starts to distrust Nate; Vanessa can't tell Rico why she wanted him back; and Ruth is either jealous or crazy

”Six Feet Under”: Unanswered questions

I’ve got a confession to make. As much as I’m married to Six Feet Under — getting all worked up over its deeply flawed characters, gasping at its maddeningly unpredictable plot twists, reveling in its outrageous dream sequences — I’ve been known to step out with Without a Trace. And somehow, my relationship with CBS’ most predictable procedural drama makes me feel like a Yankees fans who clandestinely roots for the Red Sox, a choco-holic who scarfs down vanilla over the sink with the kitchen lights out.

Just to be clear, my heart belongs to the messed-up Fisher clan. It’s just that Without a Trace is so, well, easy. The same thing pretty much happens every week. Someone goes missing. The agents (I don’t even know their names) spend an hour tracking them down. In case I zone out for a second, they write down all the relevant plot points on a big, white board. By 11 o’clock, I can sleep easy knowing the good guys have solved the case.

Six Feet Under couldn’t be more different, and this week’s episode is the perfect example how. Take Vanessa and Rico’s story arc, for example, which was hilarious and heartbreaking, infuriating yet believable, and left completely unresolved. Justina Machado could use tonight’s brutally funny lovemaking scene between Vanessa and Rico for her next Emmy highlight reel — that is, if she’s not too discouraged by the fact that (much like a higher-profile Latina in another Sunday, 9 p.m. series) she got sadly shut out of a nomination this year. Sure, we can understand why Vanessa has closed herself off sexually from her husband — not only did he betray her through his affair with Sophia but he’s also tried to win her back through a web of lies and manipulation. But at the same time, his love, or at least his need, for her is so intense we desperately want her to cut the guy some slack. Of course, there’s no easy answer, and so when Rico finally reaches his breaking point, demanding to know why she asked him to move back in, it makes perfect sense that the camera cuts away before Vanessa has time to answer. It may not always be a joy to watch this inherently sweet duo struggle to keep their wedding vows, but it’s refreshing to see a strong female character having to weigh the needs of her own heart against the desire to create a stable home life for her kids.

As for the baby that Brenda and Nate have on the way, well let’s just hope the expectant parents can find a nice storage locker for their emotional baggage before they bring the little one into their deeply fractured home. There are times when I seriously want to bash their heads together, but I don’t mind confronting my inner rage when I also get to confront the sorts of questions other dramatic series would dodge by spitting up shiny delivery-room scenes or shots of reconciled parents painting the nursery. Instead, we see Brenda’s obstetrician telling her, ”There’s no need to panic yet,” and Nate pushing for an amniocentesis ”so we can take care of it” if there’s anything wrong.

Self-indulgent and annoying as Brenda’s been for five seasons, she’s certainly come a long way emotionally. And I guess that’s why it was so painful to watch her arrive at Fisher and Diaz during the silent Quaker funeral service and witness firsthand Nate’s intimate body language with Maggie (a character whose every utterance fills me with a deep distrust). Here she is weighing the future of her complicated pregnancy versus the future of her complicated marriage, and her husband is making goo-goo eyes with his whispery soon-to-be-ex-stepsister! That ain’t right! It’s disconcerting that Brenda’s biggest source of comfort is her sanguine mother, whose idea of reassurance is blurting, ”’You think I didn’t want to abort you and Billy?” But then again, when the cameras cut away from a tearful Brenda in the kitchen with Margaret Dearest, there was no need for the writers to spell out their connection on a big, white board. Leaving things unsaid was probably more powerful than showing a further mother-daughter moment.

Thankfully, the writers allowed us all to be flies on the wall at the moment Ruth cozied up to George’s brand new fiancée. I knew the minute Ruth flushed her potato salad down the toilet that she was going to do something rash, but I never expected such a heartless sabotage, going so far as to offer up the phone number of George’s estranged son, smashing the other woman’s vase, and possibly her heart, in the process. George may not have been totally forthcoming about his mental illness, but little did he know Ruth was, in her own words, ”completely out of control doing crazy things.” Or maybe, as Ruth’s new pal Victoria put it, she’s one of those women who have to make someone else the focus of their lives or else they go mad.

In my mind, though, a frenzied Ruth is a lot more fun to watch than the standard uptight model. Right down to her omnipresent bun and earthy cardigans, she’s a woman who desperately needs to come undone. After all, if she’s really ”7 million years old” with ”an emptiness that won’t go away,” why not smash something?

Thankfully, the situation’s a little less dire at Keith and David’s house. Yet this isn’t to say their comic antics — disposing of their mother lode of porn in a back-alley dumpster, attending a musical celebration of biodiversity at their foster kids’ school, lecturing little hellion Durrell about opening the ”locked box underneath a pile of old Ralph Lauren sheets under our bed” — don’t have deeply emotional roots. By the time Durrell finally warmed up to his adoptive gay dads with the observation that ”Marie Callender’s is stupid,” I had to reach for a Kleenex. I just hope the show’s writers continue to keep the balance they’ve struck between comedy and tragedy over the last three episodes (including Rico’s alarmingly R-rated daydream conversation with Ruth), because when they get it right, it sure beats the heck out of soaking up a procedural drama on mental autopilot. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.

Continuing this season’s approach to the Six Feet Under TV Watch, I’ll ask you, gentle readers, to tackle Claire’s zippy office scenes. Is she headed for trouble with that lawyer who’s been known to hook up in the ”really rank” men’s room at the bar in the mall? Do the youngest Fisher’s lunchroom doodlings mean she’s getting her artistic groove back? Or should her character get spun off onto NBC’s version of The Office?

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