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For the sinking psyche

'Six Feet Under' and 'Rescue Me' fill the pathos void in the summer lineup.

June 17, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Sometimes you come back to a series. "Six Feet Under" is not conventional summer fare, but there it is, high-octane psychodrama cycling through its last season on HBO, get it while it's hot: Billy (Jeremy Sisto) is off the lithium and freaking that he can't find his "Ski Iraq" T-shirt; George (James Cromwell) is getting shock treatments while wife Ruth (Frances Conroy) knits, slowly losing her mind.

It all sounds like a Warren Zevon song. But you want something original in summer, something weighty and well-acted, something beyond "Dancing With the Stars," a show where self-loathing and mental illness just don't figure in. You don't need to have been watching "Six Feet Under" to watch it. It helps to know everyone's prior condition, and the series certainly has its soap opera machinations, but it's about nothing more immediate than free-floating anxiety, constantly articulated.

I dropped out several seasons ago because I found the show's voice incessantly dour. Then I dropped in again, after a stressful day, and the whole thing hit me differently: Yes they're bummed, but I'm bummed. This is a show that's trying to speak to me. And it only has a finite number of episodes left.

So I'm doing my psychopharmacological homework, catching up on who's on what meds. Despite what Tom Cruise has said about the miracle of vitamins and exercise and the evils of antidepressants, I like a show where the meds get their due. It's almost too obvious to point out: The anxious and vaguely depressed are under-represented on television. We do not have a Misery Channel as military enthusiasts have the Military Channel or "Law & Order" addicts have TNT (even the guilty until proven not guilty at which point they're still guilty have their own network. It's called Court TV).

Looking at the dramas the broadcast networks have planned for the fall, most characters on TV are going to be way too busy finding missing people and/or figuring out who among them is a space alien to delve into their own internal muck, much less figure out the whole Lexapro or Zoloft discussion.

It's curious -- so much of television is designed to make you anxious, and yet there are few series that are actually about anxiety. A majority of Americans will have a mental health disorder at some time in their lives, according to a government-sponsored survey released earlier this month, the categories ranging from anxiety disorders to substance abuse.

A New York Times follow-up suggested that more people are falling under the rubric of mental illness largely because of shifts in the culture; in contemporary life, more names are being given to behavior traits, moving them away from, say, old religious contexts (e.g. "sinners, deviants or possessed") and into psychiatric terms, such as compulsive behavior -- or "borderline personality disorder" "to describe a needy, scattered, uncertain self or personality."

And so it goes on "Six Feet Under," the borderline personality disorder hour, in which, in a particular piece of "Six Feet Under" wisdom, one character says to another: "I know that if you think life's a vending machine where you put in virtue and you get out happiness, then you're probably going to be disappointed." Next week sees the resumption of another series about free-floating anxiety, "Rescue Me," whose second season premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on basic cable's FX network. No meds here, unless you count booze and copious amounts of Vicodin. The show stars Denis Leary as Tommy Gavin, a prolifically flawed New York City firefighter. Tommy's an alcoholic in a toxic relationship with his ex-wife; as season two resumes, she's absconded with the kids, Tommy's drinking heavily and the widow of his cousin, a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center towers, is pregnant with Tommy's child.

It's because his mental state is putting his colleagues at risk Tommy's landed in a fire station out in the peaceful purgatory of Staten Island. Like the funerals on "Six Feet Under," the fires on "Rescue Me" are diversions -- bits of action between the real business of the series, which is to descend farther than most TV series do into the muck of human frailty. Except that "Rescue Me," unlike "Six Feet Under," is about men who don't know from the language of the psychiatric establishment. They feel things but act out in countless self-destructive ways -- mostly a cycle of drinking, brawling, gambling, womanizing and lying, both to themselves and the people around them.

They exist now in a post-post-9/11 world, the perks of being a New York City firefighter fading. When Tommy tries to schmooze his way out of a parking ticket evoking his fallen comrades, the cop who issues the fine is unmoved. "9/11 was four years ago, champ, deal with it," he tells Tommy, adding that after all the hero hoopla, "turns out some of yous are just broken-down drunks on the verge of a complete and total mental collapse."

"Rescue Me" is a show about men for men, and for the women who find Leary -- and firefighters in general -- dreamy. Tommy's flaws too often get romanticized into Leary's particular brand of nihilistic machismo, but the show has its rewards, mostly in the dialogue, which showcases a better-than-usual mix of pathos and humor. It's funny the way "Six Feet Under" is funny, from the bottom looking up. To hear it, it helps to be in that kind of mood -- as when George, the one on shock treatments, says to Billy, the one off his lithium: "I think that as Emil Coue used to say, 'Every day in every way, I am getting better and better.' "


Paul Brownfield can be e-mailed at

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