My wife and I have been slooowly working our way through all five seasons of Six Feet Under for the last . . . well, six years. Now that we're just three episodes away from the end, I believe I have finally cracked the code and have the formula for writing a "Six Feet Under" story arc:
Place a mostly sympathetic character in a stressful life situation.
Have that character do something really, really stupid because of sex.
Watch that character claw their way back from all the horrible, painful consequences of that decision, occasionally ending in tragedy but often seeing their way to redemption.
See how the pattern matches (warning: massivespoilers follow):
1.Â Â Â Brenda struggles with her intimacy issues to form a lasting relationship with Nate.
2.Â Â Â In a weird psychological gambit to sabotage her engagement, Brenda starts compulsively having sex with everyone under the sun, and even writing about it in an ostensibly fictional novel.
3.Â Â Â Nate eventually finds out what's going on, calls off the engagement, leaving Brenda bereft of hope. Brenda leaves town, gets her head on straight, eventually returns as a determinedly celibate person, and after one intervening boyfriend manages to get back together with Nate again.
1.Â Â Â David stresses out about keeping Keith in a long-term relationship when Keith is travelling all the time as a body guard.
2.Â Â Â Trying to boost his own sense of desirability, David picks up a hitchhiking stranger and hits on him.
3.Â Â Â Stranger turns out to be a criminal who holds him at gun point, takes him on a crime spree, makes him smoke crack, beats him up, soaks him in gasoline, and comes extremely close to shooting him. David spends most of the season utter traumatized, only slowly recovering from crippling fear and impotent rage.
1.Â Â Â Rico's wife Vanessa goes through a period of severe depression.
2.Â Â Â Tired of waiting for his wife to recover, Rico goes out salsa dancing without her, and winds up hooking up with dancer there. Feeling guilty about his transgression, Rico starts showering the other woman and her family with expensive gifts and spending time with her.
3.Â Â Â Vanessa eventually finds out about the gifts, and accuses Rico of having an affair. Their marriage is destroyed.
I could go on, but you get the point. Every major character -- Nate, Brenda, David, Keith, Claire, Ruth, and Rico -- goes through this cycle at least once, and sometimes once a season. The show's first three seasons stayed close to the original premise --Â living life in close contact with death -- but over time it's lost its focus and just seems like an endless march of sexual relationships crashing and burning.
Perhaps Alan Ball realized that things were getting a little too fuzzy, and stole a page from Joss Whedon's book: when audiences start to get bored, kill someone off. The show needed another significant death to bring it back to its senses, and Nate was the sensible choice. I can't wait to see what beyond-the-grave cameos Nate makes in the minds of his family in the last few episodes -- those always seem to be the most fun performances of the show. Lisa became much more interesting as a haunt than she ever was as a shrew.