Six Inches Under

Plain old screenwriters rarely achieve the recognizability of a Coppola or Tarantino. Charlie Kaufman comes to mind and, on the

Plain old screenwriters rarely achieve the recognizability of a Coppola or Tarantino. Charlie Kaufman comes to mind and, on the other end of the spectrum, Joe Eszterhas. A third member of this elect crew is Alan Ball. After stints on Grace Under Fire and Cybill , Mr. Ball became a name in his own right when he won the Academy Award for writing American Beauty , and then, in the manner of Michael Crichton and Joss Whedon, created his own television show, HBO’s Six Feet Under . In his Oscar acceptance speech, Mr. Ball became, as far as I know, the first man to thank both the Academy and a plastic bag, as well as part of a small but growing cadre of men who thank their “partner.” Mr. Ball came across as earnest, affable and surprised-not so much by winning the award as by the continuing good fortune that has smiled on him and the movie that, after all, bears his initials.

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Indeed, Mr. Ball’s experience with this coming-of-middle-age drama has achieved a kind of legendary status, from the agent who encouraged him to write it instead of the romantic comedies his television work would have seemed to suit him for, to the production team that “just went nuts” for the script when they saw it, to the deistic nod of Steven Spielberg, Who Placed His Hand Upon the Pages and Called Them Good. Even after DreamWorks bought the screenplay and brought on Messrs. Mendes and Spacey (not to mention Annette Bening, Chris Cooper and Allison Janney, and talented younger castmates Wes Bentley, Thora Birch and Mena Suvari), Mr. Ball’s script continued to make its way around Hollywood.

“It took on a life of its own in a way that I’ve never heard of,” Dan Jinks, one of the movie’s two producers, later reported. “People were passing it around the way that in high school people would pass around The Catcher in the Rye .”

This is a bewitching story, made all the more so because American Beauty , despite its several strengths as a movie, is a deeply flawed piece of writing-and five years later, its flaws have resurfaced in Mr. Ball’s television show.

It’s a difficult and, to some degree, false proposition to pick apart a screenplay as though it were an entity distinct from the movie made from it. Lines which fall flat on the page might well fly from the mouths of actors, and Mr. Ball’s concision and ability to visually contextualize his dialogue show that he understands screen economies and the difference between written and spoken dialogue. But neither technical skill nor superb performances can hide the fact that Mr. Ball’s words don’t stand up to scrutiny. The inclination is to call the screenplay amateurish, or immature, neither of which is wholly accurate. Rather, the story is underdone, or perhaps simply unfinished. The generational conflict between repressed parents and cynical teenagers is as culturally and psychologically antiquated as the flattop worn by Chris Cooper’s time-warped Col. Frank Fitts in American Beauty, making it hard to shake the feeling that the movie is basically Rebel Without a Cause in 90’s drag. Sunset Boulevard –style voiceovers, gimmicky special effects and lofty sentiments don’t disguise the fact that American Beauty essentially endorses selfishness as the path to happiness and enlightenment. Lester Burnham quits his job and jacks off in bed next to his sleeping wife; Ricky Fitts hides behind a camcorder until he runs away from home. The path Lester Burnham chooses is about as sustainable as the current rate of world oil consumption, and is composed of the sorts of choices he would only make if he knew death were imminent. And, as well, Mr. Ball’s original ending for young Ricky-in which he is wrongly convicted for Lester’s murder-is the only conclusion that makes sense for such a nihilistic character. Unless, of course, he really does start turning tricks, which is what motivates his father to kill Lester in the first place.

This last point raises the topic of American Beauty ‘s problematic deployment of gay people. Shots of the movie’s ersatz colonial neighborhood center on three houses: one holds a gay couple less homosexual than monosexual (they’re both named Jim), another the homicidally repressed ex-Marine who thinks his son is turning tricks (in a flashback excised from the movie, we learn that Frank Fitts had an affair with a fellow soldier in Vietnam, after whom he named Ricky); between these lives an actor whose sexuality has been speculated on at least as much as that of the star of Rebel Without a Cause . This is more than a statistical aberration, even as American Beauty is less than a “gay movie.” The multiple levels of representation and speculation-the fleeting glimpses of the jogging Jims, Frank Fitts’ erroneous conclusion that his son is having sex with Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, Mr. Spacey’s delivery of the line “I’m sorry, you got the wrong idea” when Frank kisses Lester-serve to elevate homosexuality from an individual affective inclination and behavioral choice to some kind of existentially illuminating cultural phenomenon. Uncloseted homosexuality paradoxically disappears, while concealed or repressed same-sex feelings continually out themselves in ways that threaten both the individuals who feel them and the society they live in. This is not so much wrong as simply anachronistic. Hasn’t Mr. Ball seen Angels in America -or Will and Grace ?

At the risk of seeming aphoristic, one wants to say that American Beauty isn’t very smart, but it is wise, in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. Mr. Ball has referred to himself as an “instinctive writer” who does “a lot of work on an almost subconscious level,” and this seems to explain both the strength and weakness of his vision. Because, as hackneyed as it is, American Beauty ‘s narrative is still compelling, and what makes it compelling is Mr. Ball’s insistence that every human psyche, no matter how banal on the surface, is endlessly complicated underneath. Not complex, like a difficult but solvable algebraic equation, but hard : tortured, contradictory, unstable, fickle and frequently acting against its own best interest. Though Mr. Ball’s characters initially come across as cardboard as any sitcom’s cast-loser Lester, hyper Carolyn, the slut, the ingénue, the loner-their unlikely juxtaposition gives them surprising vibrancy, rather like Ellsworth Kelly’s vivid pairings of simple but brilliantly colored geometric shapes. And, as well, Mr. Ball’s characters are given even more depth by a storyline that proceeds along unexpected tangents, as if echoing the twisted thought processes of the lives that story illuminates.

But ultimately these tangents stagnate into a pattern of their own: in place of the logic of linearity and the strictures of suburbia is the predictable magic of the plot twist, the worm at the heart of the Red Delicious you’re sure to find in Carolyn Burnham’s fridge. Where Mr. Ball does invoke causality, it comes across so stilted it’s equally fantastic, as in this exchange between Ricky and his father:

Frank: I will not sit back and watch my only son become a cocksucker.

Ricky: Jesus, what is it with you?

Frank’s backhand knocks Ricky to the floor, and draws blood as well.

Frank: I swear to God, I’ll throw you out of this house and never look at you again.

Ricky: [ eyes widening ] You mean that.

Frank: You’re damn straight I do. I’d rather you were dead than be a fucking faggot.

Ricky: You’re right. I suck dick for money.

Frank: Boy, don’t start.

Ricky: Two thousand dollars, I’m that good.

Frank: Get out.

Ricky: You should see me fuck. I’m the best piece of ass in three states.

Frank: Grrr, get out! I don’t ever want to see you again.

Ricky: What a sad old man you are.

Frank: [ whispering ] Get out.

Ricky goes downstairs, where his mother Barbara stands, inexplicably holding a plate.

Ricky: Mom, I’m leaving.

Barbara: Okay. Wear a raincoat.

Ricky: I wish things would have been better for you. Take care of Dad.

Leaving aside the bad, bad joke of “You’re damn straight,” there remains the other cliché tossed out in this heated exchange: “I’ll throw you out of this house.” In an instance of what therapists call magical thinking, Frank’s idiom is rendered an auto-da-fé, and not even Chris Cooper can make you believe Ricky leaves with anyone other than the writer’s permission. Ricky’s lie accidentally causes Lester’s death; but the real person he’s condemning is his mother, who carries that plate around as if it were her own empty heart. “I wish things would have been better for you,” he says, using the past tense as if she were already dead. Like so much else about the movie, the scene is less false than incomplete, its moral and logical implications eschewed for the sake of evocative truncation; as a result, when the movie ends its characters are left floating-like that plastic bag, one wants to say. And, like that bag, they hold nothing but air.

What American Beauty really needed was neither another plot twist nor a different conclusion, but an out-and-out sequel. Mr. Ball had something genuine to say about the nuclear family, about desire and about death, and he hadn’t said it yet. It would seem that on some “instinctive” level he must have known this, because the project that followed American Beauty , the HBO series Six Feet Under , is essentially a character-by-character recreation of the movie’s key players. Its family is composed of figures culled from the three households in American Beauty : Allison Janney’s automaton housewife reappears in Frances Conroy’s Ruth Fisher; Kevin Spacey’s selfishly distant father shows up in Richard Jenkin’s Nathaniel Fisher; Wes Bentley’s drifter ‘n’ dreamer has grown up to become Peter Krause’s Nate Fisher Jr.; Thora Birch’s ironic-but-wants-to-be-earnest teenager is the mirror image of Lauren Ambrose’s Claire Fisher; and the two Jims have moved into the main house in the form of Michael C. Hall’s David Fisher. Mr. Ball’s beloved plastic bag is back, too, this time filled by an endless series of corpses (there’s more than a little poignancy to this, since the bag that was Ball’s inspiration for his movie was blowing next to the World Trade Center). From American Beauty :

Jane: Is that a funeral?

Ricky: Yeah. Have you ever known anybody who died?

Jane: No. Did you?

Ricky: No. But I did see this homeless woman who froze to death once. Just lying there on the sidewalk. She looked really sad. [ Music swells; the cortege passes ] I got that homeless woman on videotape.

Jane: Why would you film that?

Ricky: Cause it was amazing.

Jane: What’s amazing about it?

Ricky: When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you, just for a second, and if you’re careful you can look right back.

Jane: And what do you see?

Ricky: [ stops walking; turns to Jane ] Beauty.

So. Beauty is death, or perhaps death is beautiful. It certainly is in Six Feet Under , if by beauty one means the aesthetically stylized snuff sequences that open nearly every episode, or the only reason Federico Diaz seems to be in the first two seasons of the show: because he can make any corpse look just like an actor lying in a coffin pretending to be dead. From the first episode, death was less subject than conceit, a body around which to zip a bag or frame a story. A reasonably well-made dramatic irony cloaked Lester Burnham’s murder in American Beauty : for all the speculation about Kevin Spacey, we knew, as Frank Fitts did not, that Lester wasn’t gay. That irony comes back in cheaper form in the first death in Six Feet Under -Nathaniel Fisher Sr.’s, which seems to literalize the notion that the series picks up where the movie left off, with the death of the patriarch. Ruth, worried about her husband’s mortality, glibly tells him that smoking will give him cancer. Her nagging causes her husband to throw away his cigarette-at which point he leans over to light another, averting his gaze from the bus that plows into him even as the radio plays “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” Similarly, Ruth’s words when she tells her children about the accident-“Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined”-rely on exactly the same disjunction as Barbara Fitts’ reaction to Ricky’s announcement that he’s running away from home: “Okay. Wear a raincoat.”

If Ruth is still way too June Cleaver to be believable, she also seems to have read The Feminine Mystique somewhere in her life’s journey, or The Joy of Sex . She arranges flowers; she likes to fuck. The rest of Mr. Ball’s caricatures have also softened a bit. Nate, in his late 30’s, is finally coming home, after running away as a teenager just like Ricky Fitts. Claire, despite her propensity for falling in love with the wrong guy, at least isn’t turning to pompous boyfriends as substitutes for a distant father, as Jane Burnham did. And wacky Brenda Chenowith, Nate’s girlfriend, is a force all her own. The product of Everything That’s Wrong With California, 1970’s style-i.e., the tendency to act is if you are the star of your own private movie-Brenda is Everything That’s Wrong With California, 1990’s style: She feels like the star of someone else’s movie, and that person doesn’t like her very much. Or, rather, he likes her a lot, but he likes to make her suffer even more.

That person, of course, is Alan Ball. I don’t really know how a TV show is made, and so how much of Six Feet Under one can reasonably ascribe to Mr. Ball is hard to say. Certainly it is referred to as “his” show, and has his stamp all over it: He created the series, produces it, writes a few episodes each season, directs one or two, and even showed up in a cameo once. Six Feet Under ‘s narrative style is also distinctly Mr. Ball’s: opaque characters juxtaposed against wildly expressive narratives which don’t exactly show audiences the characters’ inner torments and desires, but enable us to feel them, to empathize if not exactly understand. This is something real-something important, something genuinely tragic-and it’s not a place most television ever gets to. Six Feet Under has at its core the erotic mortal urgency of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”:

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

and then again, pop-rapper Peaches’ twenty-first century update:

Fuck the pain away.

Fuck the pain away.

Fuck the pain away.

Fuck the pain away.

Also evident is another of Mr. Ball’s predilections, all those rosebud-er, rose petal moments we saw in American Beauty : the “symbolic” daydreams of various characters literalized in what might be called sincerely ironic cartoons. Some are cloying bits of pastiche-Claire imagining her college interview as Jennifer Beals in Flashdance , or David picturing himself and Keith on a talk show as America’s model gay couple-while others are more literal fantasies: the continued reappearance of Nathaniel Sr. in dialogue with his children and wife, or the pointed conversations Nate or David or Rico have with animations of one or another of the dead people they work on. Scenes like this rankle because they short-change psychology for the sake of lively mise-en-scène . They expose and explain characters’ psyches in the most literal manner, reducing to sound bites emotions that Mr. Ball has worked so hard to make complex. They are also, and more importantly, misdirection: They aren’t epiphanies, but rather the moments after. A comment Alan Ball made on the origin of American Beauty is helpful here:

“At one point during the whole Amy Fisher/Joey Buttafuoco trial, which had turned into such bizarre national entertainment, there were street vendors selling comic-book versions of the story. But it was both sides of the story. On one cover was an illustration of this very innocent, virginal-looking Amy and this nasty, leering, big, pot-bellied, kinda sweaty Joey hovering over her, like he was about to molest this virgin. On the cover on the other side was this picture of a good Catholic husband Joey, much slimmer, oddly, and his hair was in much better shape. And there was Amy over in the corner kinda looking at him really evil, and she was done up like a little Catholic schoolgirl tart. And I just thought, ‘Man, you know, this has already become commerce.’ And either one of these stories may be true, but probably the real truth is something that’s deeper and more twisted-maybe not as entertaining. And I was taken with the idea that whatever truth happened in that story, we would never know. Nobody would ever know except the participants.”

Mr. Ball is conflating contemporary (and questionable) ideas about the unknowable nature of history-“whatever truth happened in that story, we would never know”-with invented narrative, where it is the author’s privilege to invent that truth and his duty to give it to his audience, even if his own characters are denied it. A case in point is Nathaniel Fisher’s death: Though Ruth may never know she nagged her husband to death, we do. That’s the difference between art and history. But all too often Mr. Ball resorts to entertaining cartoons: Joey and Amy, showers of rose petals, the close-up of Nate talking to the ghost of his father, or Lisa, or a high-school athlete, followed by the long-shot in which we see- huh? who? what? -Nate’s really alone. Instead of truth being exposed, artifice is, as if it needed to be.

More problematic is the fact that these cartoons are sometimes indistinguishable from the real lives of the characters. In the second season, does Brenda have sex with the author of The Lie of Romance , or is that just a fantasy? Similarly, when Keith’s sister Karla hit a homeless man, I wasn’t sure if that was her fantasy, or her daughter Taylor’s. As the show has progressed, more and more of its real plotlines have taken on the tinge of unreality. For example, in the first season Claire’s boyfriend Gabriel gets her to suck on his toes, then tells his friends about it, and Claire’s car ends up spray-painted with words like “toe sucker” and “foot fetishist”; conveniently enough, the one and only dismembered body Fisher and Sons has received during the course of four seasons shows up a few days later, and Claire steals the corpse’s foot and puts it in Gabriel’s locker. And again, in the season finale to the first season: a golfball hit by the gay ghetto-fabulous Mitzi Huntley of Kroehner Corporation beans an old woman who just happens to be related to David’s sometime stalker, killing her and necessitating a Fisher and Sons funeral. Suspended disbelief descends to dangerous lows, to say the least.

And so on: It turns out Keith’s sister Karla really does kill that homeless man, after going crazy on crack. Brenda’s brother Billy goes crazy, fakes his own suicide, stalks Claire and then tries to kill Brenda. Claire’s boyfriend Gabriel goes crazy on heroin and does kill himself-this after his little brother finds a loaded gun and kills him self. Nate’s wife Lisa goes crazy and seems to have killed herself-although, according to a dog and a psychic (if they weren’t products of Nate’s imagination), Lisa might still be alive. Even Rico’s wife Vanessa also goes crazy, after being accused of negligently killing an old woman at her nursing home, then snaps back, by which time Rico has begun a sexless affair with a stripper named Infinity who convinces him she has lupus and gets him to pay for a boob job. Luckily he’s able to come up with the cash because he inherited a pot of money from an old lady in the neighborhood. I believe the line went something like: “We called her ‘Abuela.’ It means ‘Grandma.'”

The most common criticism of the show is that such high jinks are a little too reminiscent of soap-opera plotting. The critics are right, of course, but before one acknowledges that, one should also acknowledge the fact that the characters on Six Feet Under are what pollsters call “self-selecting”; in this case, a peer group of incredibly destructive people who create most of the drama in their lives. Mr. Ball’s characters choose among potential acquaintances and mates the same way doomed heroines choose between the ax and the flashlight in horror movies: They pick up the flashlight every time, so they can shine it in the face of death as it swoops down on them. This is an expression of the form, but it’s also an expression of Thanatos, by which I mean that, yes, it’s big and Greek and a little silly, but you don’t get to have one without the other. In fact, the heroine doesn’t really choose the flashlight over the ax-vision over protection, knowledge over life. Rather, death chooses her, as it eventually chooses all of us. This is the core of Six Feet Under , clumsily driven home by the high-concept funeral-home setup, yet delicately, empathically reinforced by the continued suffering of its characters. If the show is often mawkish-especially in the more outré kill scenes, which seem culled from horror movies-it also often achieves a Weltschmerz you won’t find anywhere else on TV. By which I mean that I got mad at American Beauty because it is, ultimately, a stupid story; but I get mad at the characters on Six Feet Under because they make stupid choices. And even though I know it’ll never happen, I still hope they make the right choice at some point.

There are choices, and there are choices. And so we come to the “controversial” episode of Six Feet Under : the third episode of this season, in which David, after voicing great anxiety about the possibility that Keith might sleep around while he’s out on the road on a security detail with pop star Celeste (and after scoring with the hunky plumber in the previous episode), decides to pick up a cute hitchhiker named Jake, who then carjacks him and the last half of the show. Jake holds David at gunpoint, beats him, robs him, makes him smoke crack and chauffeur him through southern California, forces him to fellate a gun, pours gasoline on him and then drives away. Somewhere in there we should also throw in that he calls David a faggot and that David has a couple of rose-petal fantasies about his co-pilot: both before the initial assault and then, more problematically, after he smokes crack.

As we saw in American Beauty , Mr. Ball tends to privilege homosexuality for not quite explicable reasons. His gay men are so normal they’re invisible, or else so repressed they’re psychotic. In Six Feet Under there’s only one gay representative, and as a result David is forced to exemplify the worst traits of the repressed Col. Frank Fitts and the guppie Jims. A very large part of himself hates himself for being gay; when he has casual sex, it’s almost always construed as acting out; he avoids going to the gym (but still manages to keep his six-pack); he does go to church, where he ends up sleeping with his priest and resigning his deaconship because his homosexuality becomes an issue; he wants a family, but wishes he were forming it with a woman, or perhaps that he were the woman. In short, where the other characters have personalities, David has an identity. He is Gay. The first season revolves around whether he will come out to his family (who seem to have lived with him for 30 years without suspecting a thing). A later storyline revolves around whether he will come out at church (sleeping with the priest more or less took care of that), and still another storyline revolves around whether his boyfriend will come out at his job (when he does, he immediately has to fend off solicitations from his married partner, and instead ends up in bed with his female charge).

All of the factors that make Mr. Ball such a problematic figure are at play here: his tendency to externalize his characters’ psyches through plot and literalize them through fantasy; the insistence that personal choice is at play in even the most random events; and the privileging of a homosexual desire that is by turns anachronistic or too P.C. for words. All of this combines to produce a half hour of Grand Guignol spectacle that is the first out-and-out failure of Mr. Ball’s method since American Beauty , but is also, and more importantly, an illumination of that earlier failure, revealing both Lester Burnham’s murder and David Fisher’s carjacking as instances of cheaply politicized desire that emerge, especially in the latter instance, as masturbatory fantasies for gay bashers everywhere.

The creators of the show are certainly chary of such a charge. “I’m gay, Alan Ball is gay,” said Alan Poul, the director of the episode in question and one of the shows executive producers. “‘Homophobic’ is the one thing you don’t get off calling the show.” That “get off” is a truly unfortunate choice of idiom; but never mind that. What was Frank Fitts’ murder of Lester Burnham besides a homophobic act committed by a gay man? Or when the visage of a gay-bashed murder victim plagues David’s consciousness, calling him sick and depraved and unworthy of love or a family? Or again, when David, desperate to have sex, has sex with a Vegas rent boy without a condom? And how about the throwaway shot of Jeffrey Dahmer early in the second season, and all the gay men he provided for some very happy Milwaukee funeral directors-oh, wait, he selfishly disposed of those men himself, so perhaps his actions weren’t antigay but anti-mortician?

The idea that self-hatred is dangerous and often gives rise to homophobic violence-very often directed at the self-would seem to be at the core of Mr. Ball’s obsession with gay men, and Mr. Poul’s knee-jerk recusal comes across as glib and defensive. But perhaps we should turn to the episode in question. Earlier on the day of the carjacking, Claire submits some of her self-photographs for a crit, and then finds herself defending against charges that she portrays herself as “dead” and “empty” from her teacher (the fabulous Brooke Smith, who is identified as a lesbian, and who as “the girl in the pit” in The Silence of the Lambs had to defend herself against a self-hating gay man who wanted to cut off her skin so he could make himself a woman’s body):

Teacher: Okay, let me ask you this, and feel free to roll your eyes, but do you really want to perpetuate the idea of woman as a vacant vessel?

Claire: I’m not trying to perpetuate anything. I don’t have an agenda. I shoot from a more instinctual place.

Teacher: An empty place?

Claire: I’m not empty!

Teacher: No. Of course not. So maybe with your next work we can see something that actually is inside you.

Three things seem important here. The first is the idea that members of so-called identity groups can and do manufacture harmful stereotypes about themselves, especially in the form of poorly made art. The second is the confluence of the words “shoot” and “instinctual.” Put aside the fact that Claire claims to make art the same way Alan Ball does; he didn’t actually write this episode, so it seems unfair to make him take responsibility for every turn of phrase. What I’m thinking of is the shooting (and the threatening to shoot) done by Jake later in the episode. This behavior also seems deeply “instinctual.” Robbery clearly wasn’t the motive; punishment was-and as the scene progresses, his punishment grows more and more explicitly antigay, seemingly in response to David’s attraction to him (it helps to remember that Jeffrey Dahmer killed his victims because he didn’t want them to leave, and Jake goes ballistic whenever David asks to be released). When Jake tells David to lie down so he can tie him he up, he adds. “On your stomach. What do you think, we’re gonna make out, faggot?” What makes this more than merely antigay is that David has never told Jake he’s gay. Or has he? In David’s first sexual daydream about Jake, he imagines his passenger asking him whether he’s gay, which leads to a sexual fantasy; it’s only when David snaps back into reality that we realize the conversation never really happened. But how much didn’t happen? Did David start fantasizing the moment before Jake asked him he was gay, or the moment after? This isn’t a Joey ‘n’ Amy kind of thing. It’s knowable. And audiences need to know it.

In Jake’s absence, David manages to untie himself and run away. When Jake catches him, he lays atop him in pretty much the universal position for supine anal intercourse. He holds David with both hands; the gun is not visible, but David makes almost no effort to get away, or to call out to the police car that pulls up 50 feet away. Jake demands that David apologize for running away, and as David does the camera pulls back, giving us a full shot of the two men lying together. David’s “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry,” is clearly not spoken to Jake. My guess it is in fact spoken to God: the same God David sought healing and forgiveness from for the first two seasons. At the very least, he is apologizing for his desire. Not just for desiring Jake, but for the desire that seems so often to get him into trouble by its refusal to be allowed to exist free from an agenda, either liberal or conservative.

At some point after Jake recaptures David and before they smoke crack, David beseeches Jake for an explanation for his behavior. These aren’t “Why me?” inquiries, but genuine requests for information, for understanding, that are never answered. But the question is an important one. It suggests that Jake alone isn’t responsible for his actions, but that someone or something else is to blame. And failing an intermediary, we must attribute that to his creator.

Because it’s true. There was no reason for this to happen. It was an experiment-Mr. Poul uses the word “departure”-that the rest of the season is said to hinge on. In other words, it was nothing but a plot point. Throughout this needless exercise in sadism, the cast and crew of Six Feet Under do their job well. They crank out the Ball formula to perfection, introducing the inane narrative event and then zeroing in on the character so that we can see how he feels and not think too much about the improbable nature of what’s happening to him. But not even Michael C. Hall’s bravura performance-certainly the best of his four years on the show-can distract us from the inexplicable cruelty of what is actually happening. Desire is punished, and the punishment is eroticized, and the erotic, as it always does, seeks its final release in death. This is where gay desire seems always to lead in Alan Ball’s stories: to the innocuous invisibility of “partners” and the two Jims, or to the invisibility of annihilation; somewhere you get the feeling that the two states are indistinguishable. This is not to say that Alan Ball attacked David. I’m pretty sure that was Hollywood-from its ongoing to refusal to allow gay men to kiss on TV to its vested fiscal interest in its biggest stars remaining closeted, to its million and millions of fans who reinforce those decisions with every ticket they buy and don’t buy.

But regardless of who or why David was attacked, it goes down about as well as piss in your Scotch.

Six Inches Under