Six Feet Under, creator Alan Ball's saga of the mortuary-owning Fisher family, has become stylistically schematic. Each episode still begins with a death. The clan, played by Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, and Lauren Ambrose, has -- except for Krause's intriguingly back-from-the-dead Nate -- settled into predictable postures (Hall's funeral director David is gay and uptight; Conroy's Ruth is menopausal and uptight; Ambrose's teen sister Claire is artily neurotic and uptight) that are disrupted only by guest stars.
Thank goodness the guests are so good. Kathy Bates barrels in as if straight from the set of About Schmidt to play a liberating, ya-gotta-live-life pal for Ruth. Lili Taylor is back as Nate's new wife (and the mother of his child) who weighs his wandering spirit down with her damp neediness. And Catherine O'Hara is fabulous as a demanding L.A. producer who hires Taylor as her assistant (she calls from a dinner party thrown by Pam Dawber and Mark Harmon, insisting that Taylor recite a salad-dressing recipe).
I've left out one regular -- Nate's once (and future? and past?) girlfriend, Brenda. Rachel Griffiths' rapacious performance last season as a woman out of sexual control gave her and Krause the series' best moments. When she finally returns in this year's fifth episode, the pair sparks again in a way that reminds you that beneath the rich acting talent, there's a dearth of character development and thematic ideas about six inches under ''Feet'''s surface.