Six Feet Under
an original HBO series
"Television," said Noel Coward (remember him?) "is called a medium because it is not rare and is seldom well-done."
As a long-time purveyor of TV ground-round to the undemanding masses (hey, it’s a living), I almost never watch it myself. Never saw X-Files. Missed Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, and Third Rock From the Sun. Passed on every episode of Friends and Morgan’s Creek. All those shows with peoples' names as titles? Frasier, Cybill, Seinfeld, Arli$$, Cannon, Maude, Gomer Pyle, USMC?
Sorry. Must’ve had better things to do.
Television, for the most part, bores me. Its characterizations, generally speaking, are shallow, its conflicts trivial—or worse—contrived. Lately, I’d say for perhaps six or eight years, it seems the only thing TV has had to sell is sex, and I like my sex raw. On the hoof. A woman who knows her own mind and can speak it without a script.
TV shows exist so people can sell stuff. And since my elder son was tiny, he’s been told that if he sees it on TV, he can’t have it. It seems to have worked. This family travels light.
Having said this, however, I’m here to tell you that HBO’s new Sunday night series Six Feet Under is an unalloyed delight, and quite possibly that rare and well-done exception to the norm.
Drama is conflict they reminded me, over and over again in school. Conflict is born of want. Every actor, upon finding himself with a new script and the promise of a paycheck asks himself: "What do I want?" Pity the actor (and the audience) who doesn’t know the answer to that question.
Six Feet Under presents us with what is arguably America’s most dysfunctional TV family, the Fishers, proprietors of a neighborhood mortuary in that most dysfunctional, least familial of cities, Los Angeles.
Nathanial (Richard Jenkins), the patriarch, dies in the first five minutes of the first show, yet—in a highly theatrical and ironic flourish—hangs around, giving advice and sometimes being a pain in the ass.
Ruth (Frances Conroy), his wife, is properly grief-stricken—and remorseful— since she’s been having extra-marital hot monkey-sex with a mild-mannered guy who likes to backpack.
The mortuary’s been willed to Nate (Peter Krause), the elder, under-achieving son who tried to get away from it all by moving to Seattle and managing a natural foods co-op, and David (Michael C. Hall), the conflicted homosexual who put law school on hold to help dad out when things got tough in the funeral business. The conglomerate is trying to buy out Fisher and Sons.
Claire (Lauren Ambrose), the daughter, is a seventeen-year-old angst-ridden high school junior. The other kids think she’s weird. She is. She’s growing up in a funeral home. They all used to play Addams Family.
Throw in Federico (Freddy Rodriguez), the inspired Puerto Rican reconstruction artist who knows his name will never be on the shingle, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), the hottest, most off-beat love interest I’ve ever seen on TV, and Keith (Michael St. Patrick), the strapping LAPD cop who is a proud, dignified, and militantly gay lover to David, and you have the insanely great mix that I can only call perfect episodic television.
This is all brought to us through the enormous genius of Alan Ball, the author of American Beauty, 1999’s runaway hit feature film. Six Feet Under is the project to which Ball has chosen to give a number of years of his life. He is a gifted man to whom, you can be sure, the world has been offered, and he has chosen to tell us television stories built upon the two greatest conflicts life can provide: love and death.
In what has come to be, after only seven episodes, an eerily involving opening stratagem, a stranger always dies in the first two minutes of the show. Upon the backbone of this stranger’s funeral is woven the wittiest dialog, the most inventive stories I do believe I’ve ever seen in twenty-five years of making television shows.
- A multi-level marketeer who is actually broke is killed in a swimming pool accident just as he closes his life-saving deal.
- A janitor is accidentally chopped to death in a giant dough-mixing machine by a dim-witted assistant.
- A 19 year-old gangster takes a few to the heart in a senseless shooting.
- An old man simply awakes to find that his wife has died quietly in her sleep.
Stuff happens. Here’s a TV show about that.
The comedy is ferocious. The tears, at least in my house, are plentiful. Always we are reminded of the good true things, as the Fishers mend the broken bodies and the broken hearts that comprise their clientele, while dealing with their own recent grief and their own too-human comedies:
- Will David’s homosexuality interfere with his new position as deacon at his church?
- Will Claire’s remorse at having her sex-life broadcast across the schoolyard spin her deeper into teen angst and gothic denouement?
- Will Brenda’s bipolar brother derail her incredibly hot romance with Nate? (When was the last time you saw a TV mom catch her baby boy going down on his girlfriend on your television set?).
- Do Brenda’s preternaturally attractive psychologist parents really want a three-way with Nate or was that just our imagination?
- Will the conglomerate succeed in wooing Federico away from the family that put him through mortuary school?
Alan Ball and his talented writers and directors have begun to conspire with us in the creation of this landmark television show. A good audience, you see, gives as well as it gets. Six Feet Under doesn’t need villains to speed our pulse, to thrill us well and repeatedly. Alan Ball knows who the bad guys are. He and we confront them in our mirrors every day.
It is to his credit—and HBO’s— that Six Feet Under chooses to tell both sides of the human story.
Try this one on for size. Have a little laugh at Death’s expense.