It's only five episodes into the new season — but fans are already over "Six Feet Under." (search

 The four-year-old HBO drama, about an eccentric family running a funeral home in L.A., has never been the kind of pop-culture phenomenon that "The Sopranos" (search) or "Sex and the City" (search) became.

But the series has long been the critics' favorite (it was created by "American Beauty" (search) screenwriter Alan Ball). Last year, it was nominated for more Emmy awards (16) than any other show, and has had a rabidly devoted fan base — at least, until now.

This past Sunday's episode especially — in which kindly funeral director David Fisher picked up a hitchhiker, then was abducted and, despite many chances to escape, brutally tortured — has turned many longtime fans off the show completely.

"People tuned in tonight to see an intelligent, quirky, darkly comic soap opera," posted one disappointed fan on the popular Web site TelevisionWithoutPity.com.

"What they got was a cross between 'Training Day' and a horror film, with David assuming the role of the dumb, blonde damsel in distress.' "

"Every character on this show has become idiotic, pretentious, arrogant or repulsive," wrote another, equally turned-off viewer. "I never thought I'd [say] this, but I don't want to watch anymore."

By contrast, season three — considered by many to have been the series' best — tackled its usual themes of death, sex and existential angst with a level of sophistication not normally seen in primetime.

At the beginning of that season, the show toyed with the idea of dual realities: in one version of events, David's older brother Nate died on the operating table; in the other, he was unhappily married and the father of a newborn daughter.

And now? According to underwhelmed fans, "Six Feet Under" is ready to be laid to rest.

Among the most common complaints: Instead of coming up with their usual wacky deaths for the trademark opening scene, the writers have been recycling tired urban legends (e.g., the kid on acid who thinks he can fly).

In one recent episode — in which the camera pulls back on a distraught Nate, in bed, to reveal him stuck in an Artic tundra — is a rip-off from "Angels in America." (search) Perhaps most jarringly, this season's episodes end on increasingly unbelievable, melodramatic notes: Nate hauls his late wife's mauled, decomposing remains out to the desert and buries her himself by the headlights of his van (not draining the battery!); the Fishers stage an impromptu bonfire in their backyard, purging all their literal baggage as art-student Claire plays Radiohead (search) and takes pictures.

But this week's over-the-top episode — which was little more than an exercise in random, over-the-top violence — has alienated even the show's most hardcore viewers.

Some fear that the writers have hopelessly lost themselves to maudlin, soap-opera conventions, and they can't even master those: "[I've been] watching 'All My Children' and think it's much better written right now," wrote another heartbroken fan, capping off the rant with a snarky-yet-apt sign-off: "Six Feet Under: 2001-2004."