NEW YORK -- Ruth Fisher, the widowed matriarch of her funeral-home family, is as much a part of "Six Feet Under" as any other character.
But there's something irresistibly off-putting about her. She is part of the environment in which her fellow characters exist, seldom calling attention to herself. So you focus on the people around her, even as she absorbs you in everything she does.
Meanwhile, who she is remains in flux and in question. She is middle-aged and dowdy, with long red hair she is clearly proud of. She is childlike; world-weary; nurturing; remote; quiet; explosive. She's a prude who cheated on her late husband with a chef turned hairdresser she met at church. She's a skittish soul (she has never laid in a hammock: too risky, too liberating). Yet she's bold enough to face almost anything that matters.
With these human contradictions, Ruth Fisher is authentically protean in a way TV drama doesn't often bother, or dare, to attempt.
The only trouble is, the actress who gives Ruth such a lifelike portrayal is in the same boat with her: somehow overlookable in the company of flashier behavior.
"I can't think that way," argues Frances Conroy, who plays Ruth. "I think moment to moment about what she's going through, but I can't form a total picture of things. Because then I'm not in her. I can't do anything with that."
Sunday at 9 p.m. EST, HBO's "Six Feet Under" returns for its third season, with Ruth, per usual, full of surprises, as are many of the other characters.
In particular, you may be startled to find that, just since season two ended, Ruth's older son Nate (Peter Krause) has nearly died, then miraculously recovered, then wed his long-ago girlfriend, the "mother earth" Lisa (Lili Taylor), with whom he is raising their baby girl.
Nate's wanton ex, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), is noticeably absent. But very much in evidence are Ruth's college-age daughter, Claire (Lauren Ambrose); her other grown son, David (Michael C. Hall), who runs their Los Angeles funeral home with Nate; and David's romantic partner Keith (Mathew St. Patrick).
In the past, "Six Feet Under" has favored a brooding, foreboding tone. But as season three begins, the mood is lighter, the action opened up.
This applies especially to Ruth, a wallflower who, in small but emphatic ways, is blossoming. She has a brassy new friend, played by Kathy Bates, under whose tutelage she is trying bold new things: lying in a hammock; wearing a cheery shade of lipstick; even shoplifting that lipstick from the department store.
"I think it's really wonderful!" says Conroy. "She has gone from being shattered by her husband's death" - he was killed at the wheel of his hearse when a bus slammed into it in episode No. 1 - "to finding an identity within herself that was pushed aside, maybe as far back as when she got married."
Of course, Conroy isn't suggesting that her character is part of some warm-and-fuzzy "Six Feet Under" overhaul. She isn't promising any long-term trend. With this show, you never know where things are going until you know - whether you're a viewer following each episode or Conroy receiving the next script.
She says she likes shaping her performance to the incremental here-and-now.
"I have all the information from what I've learned about Ruth previously to know how she responds to each moment," Conroy explains. "It's like real life: We don't get a preview of what's coming up, thank God, and we don't build our own character from what we're going to be informed with in the future."
Speaking with a reporter at HBO headquarters last week, the 49-year-old Conroy proves chipper and pleasantly stylish. And younger-looking than Ruth: "Some people ask me, 'Do they put aging makeup on you?' It's just this very nice street makeup."
A New York-based actress who has made many movies (among them "Maid in Manhattan," "The Crucible" and "Sleepless in Seattle"), Conroy has concentrated on the stage, from "Othello" to Broadway productions of Arthur Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" and Neil Simon's "The Dinner Party."
For her, episodic television is an exotic venue, something she is still getting used to - and, thanks to the life-and-death issues her particular show tangles with, something that digs into her own past.
She recounts an odd but tender moment when, in 1997, she returned to Monroe, Ga., where her father had been buried when she was a girl, to bring him to New York's Long Island, where she now lives, for reinternment.
At Conroy's orders, the body had been exhumed after 28 years, then cremated. This gave the funeral home a rare chance to follow up on its handiwork.
"I wish you could have seen your father," reported the funeral director proudly after presenting Conroy with the ashes. "He looked so peaceful. His lips were a little dry, and that's really all."
Conroy laughs affectionately.
"She wasn't being macabre. She was sweet, and I was very moved."
Any "Six Feet Under" viewer could relate.
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