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Classic Television Rundown: Six Feet Under, Season Two, Episode One: "In the Game"

Six Feet Under
Season Two, Episode One: "In the Game"
Written by Alan Ball
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Nathaniel: You're in the game now, buddy boy. Whether you like it or not.
The premiere episode of Six Feet Under, season two, seems to be the perfect genesis of the show. It had everything in it that I love about the show -- an extended sequence into the mind of Nate, with a lot of Nathaniel thrown in for good measure, allusions to literature that tie into the episode itself, and a dark tone that never veers into Misery Porn. It is the type of episode that, were I watching the show as it aired, I would have hoped the show would have stayed in this territory.

What, specifically, makes "In the Game" so good? First, the raw, nervous energy exhibited by the central characters. We find Nate, post-discovery of his AVM, full of tension that cannot be eased by doing the one thing his neurologist tells him not to do - go out for a run. Brenda, meanwhile, is mired in a post-accident rut involving booting her (jerky) massage patient and smoking a lot of cigarettes while unsatisfactorily reorganizing things. David finds his post out-of-the-closet life is not as easy as it seems, getting coolly rejected by a guy he has little in common with and coming to grips with the fact that he is the third wheel in Keith and Eddie's power couple relationship. Ruth and Claire find themselves attempting to make sense of their somewhat nonsensical relationships. Best of all, the direction and writing seem to be on the same page for the first time ever.

Director Rodrigo Garcia, he who directed two of the high points of season one in "The Room" and "A Private Life", helmed the season premiere. In the directors' commentary, he is quick to point out the parts of the episode that were not his idea, or that were generated by the actors themselves. Here would be a good place for me to mention that the episode seems to find all of the actors on the top of their "game" (sorry, couldn't resist.) The things we don't know without reading or listening to the writers and directors of episodes are the things that the actors bring to the table(*). And, the culmination of writers, directors, and actors on the same page no doubt helped generate some moments that have the show firing on all cylinders.

(*)Garcia pointed out in the elongated dinner sequence that serves as one of the two centerpieces of the episode the numerous things the actors did in the scene that they brought to the scene themselves. A plate clangs against a glass, Peter Krause (Nate) ad libs a little bit, etc. It's easy to forget that the success of a television program largely relies on casting, and Six Feet Under is cast extremely well.

A couple individual scenes stand out to me. One was the scene with Nate in the doctor's office. In introducing a plot that has major ramifications on the central character, Nate finding out more and more that his AVM is a serious, unpredictable medical situation is one that normally would be dropped in a scene covered in schmaltzy orchestral music, tears, and overwrought emotion. Instead, Nate's doctor tells him in a very matter-of-fact manner, and Nate's reaction is anger. Another scene was David's unsuccessful date. David's disappointment is palpable, yet his date doesn't bother to stop and check on his feelings. And why would he? He doesn't know David at all. And when David calls Keith after his awkward brunch and Keith tells him, "You and me, it ain't happening," the effect is quietly devastating. As Garcia says, scenes like this successfully straddle the "Sad, not sentimental" line.

The middle two sequences, the dinner scene, and the elongated trip into Nate's (accidentally) high brain seem to sum up what makes Six Feet Under work in a nutshell. While the dinner sequence does a great job demonstrating how well the show clicks when the characters just spend time together, Nate's vision of a game of Chinese Checkers between Life and Death and helped out by Memory Ghost Nathaniel demonstrates the ambition that help propel the series into the next level. As Garcia calls it(**), it is the move from "the real to the unreal and back" that works well for the series. Nate's drug trip is not dissimilar to the dreams that Agent Dale Cooper has in Twin Peaks, albeit these dreams are much less about the avant-garde and much more about demonstrating the inner mind of our main characters.

(**)In the commentary, Garcia frequently mentions how uncomfortable he is in directing scenes like this. You wouldn't be able to tell by how well the scenes are set up, how Nate awakes from his nap in the dream and walks into a different reality. Along with the drawn-out shots of characters just talking to each other, much like his work with HBO's In Treatment, Garcia has demonstrated himself to be a great television director.

Nate is convinced his inadvertent trip (a slick callback to "The Trip" from season one, as his trip was on account of one of the Ecstasy pills David put in the aspirin jar in the kitchen) has given him a breakthrough at a time he really needs a breakthrough. But Brenda quickly points out the things he wrote down frantically, "All that lives, lives forever..." is from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu scripture that features the famous section that Nate's subconscious churned out for him, or "recycled crap from my brain" as he calls it. In an episode that is about getting through the obstacles we face in life, and about getting stuck in ruts that seem to be impossible to get out of, a faux-breakthrough from a script that also serves as an inspiration to the show seems to be a perfect combination for a great episode.

Grade: A

Memorable Quotes and Other Things
  • "When I was your age, I actually had a little crush on Jane Fonda." -Ruth "Well, she's single again, so now's your chance." -Claire. Ruth was interrogating Claire on whether or not she has ever had same-sex attractions.
  • "Fuck you! Fuck you fuck you fuck you!" -Nate, honking his horn after Memory Ghost Nathaniel torments him a little bit after his Doctor's appointment.
  • "Why is my friend special?" -David, on Ruth's question about whether his "special friend" would join them for dinner.
  • "Please, if our blood were any thinner, we'd evaporate." -David "What's that supposed to mean? Is that some sort of insult? We're thin-blooded?" -Ruth
  • "She threw her fucking life away. It's not sad, it's pathetic." -Rico, on the actress who died at the beginning of the episode. Other than Nate's lingering look at her corpse after his doctor's appointment, there isn't much tie-in with the Death of the Week and the rest of the episode. Other than to give Alan Ball license to make fun of shallow people in Hollywood again.
  • On the Ball end, Rico and Nate have a brief conversation about one of the products that were in the commercials that haunted the pilot episode. Come on, Alan Ball. Let it go.
  • "Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy." -Nikolai "Nikolai, you are so beautiful. You are such a beautiful person. There is this total light coming out of you." -Nate (high)
  • "On or off the bus, if you prefer." -Memory Ghost Nathaniel, utilizing some symbolism that will continue throughout the series. Obviously, Richard Jenkins makes any episode of SFU a special episode.
  • "Big cosmic mystery. Right here, right in front of you. You can't say your old man never took you any place interesting." -Nathaniel "Yeah, but I'm high. I know I'm high." Nate. Probably my second favorite line of the episode.
  • "All that lives, lives forever. Only the perishable, the shell passes away." -Nathaniel "Fuck, yeah." -Nate. An interaction that also helps define the show.
  • "You and me, it ain't happening." -Keith, to David. Dude tells it like it is.
  • "This is really boring." -Claire "No, it's hilarious, is what it is." -Gabe "Gabe, a girl died." -Claire "So what? Everybody dies." -Gabe. Another example of dropping serious pain in a nonchalant conversation. Don't forget, Gabe's little brother died recently.
  • "...the spirit is without end. Eternal. Deathless." -Nate "It's the Bhagavad-Gita." -Brenda "But it felt so profound. Are you telling me it's just recycled crap from my brain?" -Nate
  • "I'm having enough trouble just being with myself right now. It's me. I'm fucked up. And you can't fix it." -Brenda, in my third favorite line of the episode.

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