[4 November 2011]
Take a moment and think of your favorite uses of music on television. What comes to mind? Iconic theme songs, certainly. Instrumental pieces like Johnny Mandel’s mournful M*A*S*H* theme “Suicide Is Painless” and the irrepressible swagger of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn. The otherworldly electronic whistles of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who and Earle Hagen’s simple, homey one for The Andy Griffith Show. Jingle-like lyric pieces, whether helpfully expository like Sherwood Schwartz and George Wyle’s “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle” and Will Smith and Quincy Jones’ “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” or more broadly functional pop songs like The Rembrandts’ Beatleseque Friends theme “I’ll Be There For You” and Gary Portnoy’s Tin Pan Alley-like Cheers opener (the latter was named The Best TV Theme Song of All Time by Paste magazine a few years back). Or maybe you think of live performances captured on television variety shows: Elvis and the Beatles inciting mass teenage hysteria on Ed Sullivan, Michael Jackson moonwalking during Motown’s 25th anniversary special, Madonna writhing around in a wedding dress on MTV’s first Video Music Awards, controversial stunts pulled by Saturday Night Live musical guests like Elvis Costello, Nirvana and Sinead O’Connor.
In dramatic television, however, music never managed to play much of a roll during the medium’s first half-century, at least after the main titles finished rolling. Rare instances flit through memories from my own childhood, notable mainly for how anomalous they are: Billy Vera and the Beaters’ “At This Moment” scoring Alex P. Keaton’s heartbreak on Family Ties (and sending the then-five-year-old single to the top the Billboard charts in 1986); Ray Charles’ showing up on Who’s The Boss? to perform “Always a Friend” as a spur to the show’s sappy plot machinations; the period use of various late ‘60s hits on The Wonder Years. Up through most of the 1990s, though, television remained a dramatically static medium, never so much resembling the fluid rhythms of film as it did the stagy presentations of live theater, even in instances when the programs were not locked into live in-studio locations (think, for example, how rarely cop shows ever used music beyond the perfunctory melodramatic scores, or how even a format-bending sitcom like Seinfeld never relied on musical cues beyond its own iconic theme); a hangover, perhaps, from the early days of television, when programs were very literally live, and things like elaborate musical soundtracks were still the exclusive domain of the more glamorous medium of the cinema.
Even viewers raised during the 1990s, when various format shakeups began expanding the boundaries of the medium—whether it was animated sitcoms like The Simpsons opening up possibilities in terms of presentation, or HBOs esteemed roster of mature programs doing the same in terms of content—were expected to recognize the obvious distinctions between film and television. Today, the distinctions are less clear. Somewhere towards the end of the 1990s, television began mimicking its higher achieving older sibling, the movies, more frequently and effectively, culminating in 21st century landscape where there is now as much formal variety on television as there are options for programming. Keeping in mind (please) that this is a potted history at best, and that even the most dramatic revolutions rarely occur with such linearity, dramatic television’s cinematic overhaul began more or less in that lawless backwoods of the medium, cable TV, before eventually expanding outwards to the networks. By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, even many of the most mainstream television programs bristled with the energy of filmmaking, up to and including the creative uses of music on the soundtrack.
Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under (2001-2005) arrived at a fairly nascent period in this development, just late enough to benefit from the groundwork laid by fellow HBO drama The Sopranos (1999-2007) yet early enough that its own accomplishments can now be viewed as truly innovative and perhaps even influential. We can speculate that the distinctly filmic qualities of Six Feet Under emerged internally, perhaps a result of series creator Ball coming from the world of film, having won an Oscar for his screenplay for American Beauty two years prior (tellingly, Ball has gone on to greater success on television, with his current series True Blood now in its fourth season while his 2007 return to film, as both writer and director of Towelhead, was a dead-on-arrival flop), but, as we will see, Six Feet Under did bow to trends in television, however brilliantly or subversively, during its run nearly as often as it stormed the gates of the medium with its singular vision.
This is not, then, a history of the many artistic accomplishments of Six Feet Under as a series, and it is certainly not, no matter how it may have read so far, a thorough examination of the uses of popular music on television. My intentions here are far more micro than macro in nature, even if the particular dots I am discussing do end up fitting onto a much larger horizon. My subject is not Six Feet Under, or even certain episodes, as a whole, but rather two specific sequences from two separate episodes, and how they use popular music as both dramatic (and again, filmic) devices and cultural signifiers. These two sequences may not even be Six Feet Under ‘s most immediately recognizable musical instances—I am discussing neither the show’s glassy Thomas Newman instrumental theme (another American Beauty connection), nor Sia’s “Breathe Me”, the song that plays over the series’ final flash-forward montage sequence, nor the two soundtrack CDs that were released during the show’s run. These two sequences do, however, broadly illustrate Six Feet Under ‘s singular genius and sophistication as a drama as perfectly as any that you could select from elsewhere the series, musical or not. These ones just happen to have a couple of great songs in them, too.
Part A: “Transatlanticism” (from “Terror Starts at Home”, Season 4, Episode 6)
I Need You So Much Closer
At 1:20, the scene itself lasts about six-and-a-half minutes shorter than the nearly eight minute song that scores it, but it feels much longer as it plays out, and expands to even greater length in memory. The glacial pace of the song itself is certainly responsible for the feeling of time slowed down, but the happily stoned haze its five characters occupy has a lot to do with it as well. A quick blow-by-blow of this brief sequence, then:
Claire (Lauren Ambrose) draws the phrase “TERROR STARTS AT HOME” (thus giving the episode its loaded title) in blue paint on her bedroom wall, observing her work long enough to pontificate on its meaning. “It’s like, how many evil-doers do you have to kill before you become one yourself, you know?” “Totally,” replies attentive friend and soon-to-be lover Edie (Mena Suvari) while, over on Claire’s bed, her ex-lover Russell (Ben Foster) strokes Claire’s roommate Anita’s (Sprague Grayden) leg, uttering “smooth” in the sensory-heightened awareness of his drug stupor (the five art school classmates had taken AMT, described as “like ‘X’ but groovier”, in a previous scene), while Anita replies, with her own dawning awareness of the drug’s effect, “I’m insanely thirsty”. On the floor next to the bed, another of Claire’s soon-to-be lovers, Jimmy (Peter Facinelli) sits, eyes closed and smiling dumbly, in a blissful daze. Cut back to Claire and Edie nodding along to the rhythm of the song playing on some unseen stereo, before Edie picks up on the song’s oft-repeated chorus refrain: “I need you so much closer”. Soon, Claire joins in, and then, as the camera repeats its tour of the room, Russell, then Anita, and then—stroking Anita’s other leg while loudly exhaling in anticipation of whatever other sensory experience is to follow—Jimmy all now singing along with the song’s desperately longing hook. Cut back to Claire, swaying along to the music of the stereo and her friends, before the scene abruptly, even rudely, cuts away to a separate set of characters collapsing onto a carpeted floor in a post-coital entanglement.
The song they are singing along to is “Transatlanticism”, the title cut from the fourth studio album by Washington band Death Cab For Cutie. A hypnotically paced, melancholy ode to the distance—physical, emotional or, more likely, the latter literalized as the former—between a pair of lovers separated by whichever schism you choose to read into it, “Transatlanticism” is a curious pop song for a couple of reasons. For one, a strictly literal reading of its text places it within the very small tradition of unrequited love songs where the thing standing in the way of the happiness of the narrator (and, one presumes, the narrator’s object of affection) is not a third person, or even the subject’s unwillingness to reciprocate, but rather actual space. A couple of pop generations earlier, They Might Be Giant’s tackled this same issue with more clarity with their single “Ana Ng”, in which the narrator not only lamented the distance between the two potential lovers, but also the fear that time may be running out for them, albeit for no reason more square and unsexy than “Ana Ng and I are getting old”.
“Transatlanticism” never acknowledges time in any such way; in fact, the entire text of the song reads as if it is always taking place right now. Writing in the present tense is hardly unusual, especially in something as relatively simple as a pop lyric, but “Transatlanticism” is far more lyrically (and again, unusually) complex than most pop songs. Far from simply mourning his absent love, lyricist Benjamin Gibbard casts his subject on an epic-scale canvas (perhaps to match the size of his and co-writer Chris Walla’s sprawling composition), beginning the lyric with a kind of dream vision: “The Atlantic was born today and I’ll tell you how / The clouds above opened up and let it out”. Beginning your own story with the birth of the Atlantic Ocean displays an almost Miltonian level of ambition (or pretension), though as a poetic device it serves a surprisingly effective purpose, introducing the sudden, inconvenient existence of the Atlantic Ocean as it becomes a sudden, inconvenient factor in this particular long distance relationship.
The Six Feet Under scene, which, again, runs only about a quarter of the length of “Transatlanticism”, features none of this surrealistic preamble to the song’s chorus, but rather captures it at about the very moment the lyric is shifting from the fanciful to the real: “The rhythms of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door have been silenced forevermore” (2:45 into the song itself) is the first thing we hear of the song in the show, just before it makes its way towards that mighty chorus. Likely, the timing has to do with little more than the demands of the scene, and the fragment of pre-chorus that we get is simply there to establish the song’s presence in it as it moves from a piece of the setting’s environment (diegetic, as they call it in academic-speak) to the eventual focus of the scene. More likely, the song is cut into the scene in such a way as to not burden the audience with more text than is necessary (it is already a fairly sparse scene, dialogue-wise, as my earlier summary indicates) pulling the focus towards the implications of the chorus hook when the characters begin singing it. Perhaps, though, we are given none of Benjamin Gibbard’s dream world because the characters’ hallucinogenic state provides one of its own, one in which “I need you so much closer” is not a cry across a cruel, insurmountable distance but rather a conversation between these five characters in which they draw each other into a shared experience, however artificially induced.
If this repurposing of “Transatlanticism” feels a bit shallow, or at least perilously free of irony, though, consider some of what happens during the remainder of the episode. Claire, in the midst of sharing this connection with her friends, is soon called away (during which time Anita, Russell and Jimmy presumably have a three-way in Claire’s shower), having forgotten that she is due at her brother David’s birthday dinner being held downstairs. Showing up still deeply under the influence, her blissfully extroverted presence clashes with the already tense family atmosphere, finally punctuated when a nearly naked Jimmy crashes the oppressively formal scene. Returning to her friends, Claire gushes over having “really connected” with her family over dinner, when clearly the opposite is the case. In her imagining of this connection between her and her bewildered family, and in not being present for the duration of the drug experience (and sexual experimentation) with her friends, Claire is essentially isolated from both groups. If “I need you so much closer” is intended, as we can plausibly read it, as an outward expression of Claire’s mental and emotional needs at the particular point in the series in which it occurs, we instead find her dethatched, withdrawn and, perhaps worst of all, oblivious to all of it.
Before becoming sidetracked by the alluring combination of sex, drugs and indie rock singalongs, Claire and her friends are shown discussing their plans for combining their respective areas of artistic interest in the creation of some large, “confrontational” multimedia art project. “Multimedia” was a previous generation’s buzzword for what is now, in today’s inextricably interconnected environment, essentially just “media”, and few bands better expresses this particular 21st century condition than Death Cab For Cutie. Amusingly enough, for all of the artists who have attempted to incorporate a variety of media formats into their work (Gorillaz, Brian Eno and Bjork, to name a prominent few), the relatively quaint Death Cab For Cutie appear to have come about their internet-age fame rather inadvertently. Formed in 1997 and having built up a small but reasonable following through their early records, the 2003 release of the Transatlanticism album found the band gaining exposure via a most unusual outlet: the FOX teen soap opera The O.C. Frequently cited as the favorite band of main character Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), Death Cab had five of its songs (three of them off of Transatlanticism) appear in the series, one of its songs released on a volume of the show’s tie-in soundtrack, their poster hung on Seth’s bedroom wall and even performed live on the show in one episode.
The effect of The O.C. on Death Cab For Cutie’s career was seismic. Although the band had reportedly been in talks with major labels at various points in their career up to that point, the exposure played a significant part in snagging the formerly independent label band a deal with Atlantic Records. Their first major label album, Plans, was released in 2005, eventually rising to #4 on the Billboard album chart and earning a platinum sales certification of over 1,000,000 albums sold (the band has since released two other albums on Atlantic, the most recent being this year’s Codes and Keys). Death Cab’s success, however, did not exist in a bubble. In not very much time at all, network television was all over the once fiercely publicity shy genre of indie rock, scoring such mainstream dramas as Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill to the more radio friendly end of the bands regularly found among Pitchfork‘s daily reviews. Suddenly, artists like Rilo Kiley, Tegan and Sara, The Postal Service (a Ben Gibbard side project), Feist, Metric, Peter Bjorn and John, Frightened Rabbit and Hot Hot Heat, among others, were gaining the kind of exposure previously unattainable to such non-corporate acts.
Just as the internet was making it easier and easier for independent musicians to get their music heard and distributed, television stepped in to lend its own helping hand via the magic of cross-marketing. Multi volume CD soundtrack releases of many of these programs flooded the market like movie soundtracks had been doing for years prior, perhaps culminating in the current success of Glee, a music-oriented television series that has already boasted an obscene number of product tie-ins in its two-season run. If you wish to trace a damning lineage from Six Feet Under and Death Cab For Cutie to Ryan Murphy’s incessant milking of his cash cow, go right ahead, but consider how even Glee is formally revolutionary in its own way, the kind of thing that could likely never have existed without the previous decade’s weaving of music into dramatic television so tightly that something like a weekly musical TV drama was now possible (not to take too much away from Glee’s individual accomplishment; surely it is doing something right where such earlier attempts at musical television drama, like NBC’s justifiably forgotten Hull High and ABC’s eternal punchline Cop Rock, failed). For better or worse, any institution that suddenly welcomes art school punks and indie rock nerds will only, over time, find itself more hospitable to drama geeks and glee-choir freaks, not less.
As Long As We’re Not, Like, Greedy Imperialists
Any discussion of indie rock’s hesitant dealings with the mainstream remains incomplete, however, without addressing the genre’s own death-and-taxes inevitability: backlash. Discussions on how Death Cab For Cutie “sold out” with their Atlantic deal can certainly be found in several elitist corners of the internet, but even the band had to know that hitching their particular wagon (or death cab, as it were) to a show about the pampered excesses of a bunch of rich and beautiful California teenagers was just asking for it (similar appearances a decade earlier on Beverly Hills 90210 either came from already unabashedly commercial acts like Color Me Badd, or the long-ago appropriated likes of the Rolling Stones). Such tedious debates will exist as long as there is any kind of corporate structure to the music industry, to be sure, but the indie-ificaction, as it were, of television soundtracks does bring with it the unique bonus of offering a stream of revenue to these artists at a particularly volatile time. With bands and labels (indie and otherwise) losing money to illegal downloading, selling music to television (and film, and advertisers) may not only represent an attractive opportunity, however unpopular in some circles, but also perhaps one of the few options remaining to anyone hoping to make it as a working musician in the 21st century.
“Terror Starts at Home” aired a good year after The O.C. began having its lead character touting his Death Cab fandom, long enough to open Six Feet Under ‘s use of “Transatlanticism” to potential accusations of trend hopping. But what if the show’s intentions ran deeper than that? Certainly, there is an angle at which the appearance of a Death Cab For Cutie song on Six Feet Under occurring just as the band was starting to hit its mainstream stride could be viewed as deeply ironic. After all, what are Claire and her art school friends if not privileged white California kids, akin to The O.C. gang in every way besides their lofty artistic ambitions? Is Six Feet Under ‘s Death Cab-scored atmosphere of bisexual orgies and hard drug use revealing the cleanliness of The O.C.‘s PG-rated debauchery as a funhouse-mirror distortion of Six Feet Under ‘s comparative realism? Or does the way that the characters utilize “Transatlanticism” as a kind of dialogue between them, calling to each other for comfort and togetherness, expose the fraud of Seth Cohen’s wearing of his indie badges as a shallow fashion statement (and who’s being elitist now)?
Perhaps the answer is none of the above. In her DVD commentary track for “Terror Starts at Home”, the episode’s writer Kate Robin mentions that the scene was originally conceived with Judee Sill’s “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” as the song until it was deemed too difficult to sing along with. No mention is made of how “Transatlanticism” was eventually decided upon as a replacement, though anyone in charge should have understood the plausibility of a group of circa-2004 college students singing along to Death Cab For Cutie rather than a comparatively obscure Judee Sill song from 1971. A happy accident if an accident at all, then, and besides, Six Feet Under wouldn’t get quite that ambitiously surreal with their soundtrack choices for another season yet.
Walk Me Through This One
The scene is such a strange echo of the previous one that you figure it can’t not be intentional. We have another group of characters gathered, drugs again (marijuana, this time) and another sing-along. This time it is Ruth (Frances Conroy) opening up the Fisher family home to a group of outsiders, now convening in the home’s basement around a body being prepared for funeral. The body is that of a middle-aged woman named Fiona, best friend of Ruth’s sister Sarah (Patricia Clarkson), who has gathered a few other friends, including Sarah’s caretaker Bettina (Kathy Bates), Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), the on-again-off-again girlfriend of Ruth’s son Nate, and real-life feminist sex writer Susie Bright (playing herself), for a kind of sisterly bonding ritual in honor of their fallen friend.
Sarah begins quietly singing the phrase “calling all angels”, as if muttering an incantation. The other women soon join in, hesitantly at first, fleshing out the song’s chorus: “Calling all angels / walk me through this one / don’t leave me alone […] we’re trying / we’re hoping / we’re hurting / we’re loving / we’re crying / we’re calling / ‘cause we’re not sure how this goes”. The song is “Calling All Angels,” a duet by Jane Siberry (the songwriter) and k.d. lang that appeared on Siberry’s 1993 album When I Was a Boy. It is a stately yet reserved ballad, a mixture of New Age calm and folk-pop grace, Siberry’s lead vocal never so much singing the lyrics as sighing them in a poise balanced halfway between spiritual reverie and maternal reassurance, with lang’s relatively deeper register offering a kind of earthbound counterpoint to her ethereal singing partner. It is the kind of thing that might be too easily mistaken for syrupy Christian pop if one was unaware of the performers (a respected, if relatively obscure Canadian songwriter and a more famous, also Canadian gender-bending country singer) or lacked the patience to hear the song out beyond its hymn-like chorus.
We do not actually hear any of the recorded song in the episode until much later. Very much unlike the “Transatlanticism” sequence, there is no diegetic source for the song in the scene itself. It is simply summoned by one of the characters and the picked up upon by the others, like an object wedged deep inside their collective consciousness being brought to the surface for this moment. Or at least, that is how the use of the song demands to be read. Assume that Six Feet Under is a “realistic” drama and the scene begins to make very little sense. “Calling All Angels” was neither a hit song in its day, nor is it sufficiently cult-ish enough (very much unlike the Death Cab For Cutie song) that we can believe that the song just happens to be a cherished favorite among this group of women. Perhaps if it were an obscure tune from the 1960s or 1970s, the era of these hippie-ish womens’ youth, we could accept it as having stemmed from the experiences of their younger days, but “Calling All Angels” came out in 1993, by which time all of these women would have been wives, mothers or career women. There is simply no basis for the viewer to accept that this diffuse, if interconnected, group of women would be able to simply break into this song at such random convenience.
Given that Six Feet Under, as ostensibly based in the “real world” as it is, does allow for the occasional flight of fancy—usually in the form of character’s conversing with the dead, though sometimes in scenes such as another in this very episode in which Claire bursts into an ¬American Idol-like rendition of “You Light Up My Life” on the desk of her office temp job—perhaps this scene can be read as simply one of those, maybe even a hallucination on the part of Ruth, culled from what is likely her first experience with marijuana and the memory of an evocative song that she heard once somewhere. But unlike other fantasy sequences on Six Feet Under, this one never bothers to reveal itself as such, and thus demands to be taken as part of the show’s actually occurring narrative. What we have, then, is a scene that is quite anomalous in the world of Six Feet Under and yet, as we will see, is not without formal precedence elsewhere.
Crack the Code
One obvious way to read the scene is as a minor key evocation of the Hollywood musical, a genre where characters suddenly bursting into song in unison is not only not unusual, but an expected convention. The way the scene further plays out, however, is much more clearly evocative of certain other cinematic forms. As the women begin their second round of the “Calling All Angels” chorus, some gentle strings and, soon, a piano sweep in as the scene cuts to a brief montage sequence of several other characters from the series captured in their own current states of isolation and distress, returning to the women long enough for the scene to close on the series’ standard white-light fadeout. The use of “montage”, a key innovation in the development of cinematic storytelling and now one of its most commonplace elements, in the scene is itself a declaration of the show’s filmic ambitions. Already commonplace on dramatic television in 2011, such a device was exactly the kind of thing that, not long ago, rarely found its way onto television unless in the form of music videos or commercials (or, it should be noted once more, on animated comedies like The Simpsons, which utilize them frequently). Go figure that one of television’s most innovative uses of music in the history of the medium is matched with one of its bolder early-ish uses of montage, given that the two now go hand in hand on the big screen.
The “Calling All Angels” sequence is not evoking a particular type of montage, however—there is nothing here that is even remotely intended to resemble the famous, and infinitely spoofed, training montages of sports dramas or the shopping ones of countless romantic comedies—but rather a specific one. As the characters begin singing along with a song by a critically acclaimed, commercially underappreciated female singer-songwriter, just try to not think of a similar scene from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999, and thus a contemporary of American Beauty in its millennial, upper middle class ennui) in which the film’s characters sing along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up”. The details are indeed different; Magnolia takes the unlikely conceit several steps further by combining the montage and the sing-along, as characters isolated in separate locations all break into Mann’s bleakly encouraging ballad. Six Feet Under plays its own version of this scene a little closer to the vest, its comparative lack of wild cinematic flourish perhaps a coded acknowledgement of the fact that television remains, for all of its recent catch-up playing, a smaller scale version of the movies. But the connection, half of it homage and the other half emulation, is certainly there.
If Six Feet Under is using “Calling All Angels” as a means to realize one of its loftier cinematic ambitions, it is somewhat amusing to note that “Calling All Angels” itself was a song that was originally born into cinema. Two years before Siberry included it on her When I Was a Boy album, the song appeared on the soundtrack to German auteur Wim Wenders’ troubled 1991 film Until the End of the World. To this day, the soundtrack album retains a lasting reputation as one of the finest soundtracks of the 1990s, even if the film itself was a failure. This is merely a footnote, however, compared to the song’s other cinematic usage, as the end credits theme to Mimi Leader’s painfully simpleminded Christ-figure allegory, Pay It Forward (2000). In that film, an earnest pre-adolescent played by Haley Joel Osment, at the urging of his emotionally damaged teacher (Kevin Spacey, done up in punishingly literal scar makeup), begins an experiment to make the world a better place through a series of charitable, if occasionally ill advised, good deeds. The boy’s experiment eventually becomes a fairly widespread cultural movement and (spoiler warning!) after he is killed defending a friend from a bully, the film ends with hoards of people swarming to the family’s home for a candlelight vigil, fading out on “Calling All Angels” as the credits roll.
Pay It Forward was not a success commercially (its domestic box office take stalled around $33 million) or critically (the reviews were generally scathing), but the film does seem to have taken on something of a second life on DVD and cable television. An argument could easily be made that it is exactly the kind of film that a certain audience, one that generally goes unrepresented by both critical raves and box office dollars, eventually finds after the various gatekeepers of cinematic relevance have long discarded and forgotten it; the kind of film, in fact, that is embraced not despite but rather because of its mawkish sentimentality (for further examples of this uncool subset of the “cult” movie, see also The Notebook, or anything by Tyler Perry). That Pay It Forward has developed some kind of legacy beyond that of a high profile bomb means that, like it or not, the film has become part of the legacy of “Calling All Angels” as well.
It may be reaching to suggest that Six Feet Under “reclaims” “Calling All Angels” from Pay It Forward, but someone may have had just that in mind. Odds are that it was Jill Soloway, the writer of the episode (lets hope it wasn’t Alan Ball cruelly lambasting Kevin Spacey for his post-American Beauty string of flops), who gives the episode a subplot in which Vanessa (Justina Machado), the momentarily estranged wife of Fisher family business partner and employee Rico (Freddy Rodriguez), hires a nanny to help out with the house and children. The nanny (played by Jayma Mays, currently on Glee) turns out to be airheaded, negligent and wildly unprofessional, using the kids to help record her audition tape for Survivor. Vanessa finally fires her when she realizes that the nanny has allowed a homeless man into the house (she is making him pancakes when Vanessa walks in to find the disheveled man sitting in her living room), in a scene that rather explicitly mirrors a similar occurrence in Pay It Forward. In having Vanessa tell off the nanny (and in the show’s playing the character for comic relief), Six Feet Under offers a sly dismissal of the Pay It Forward philosophy, as it were, as dangerously naïve. It’s Jean-Luc Godard’s axiom of “the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie” wittily put into practice, though one wonders if whoever was behind the slight was less concerned with debunking the dubiousness of Pay It Forward‘s message than they were with remedying the possibility of so great a song becoming forever associated with so lousy a film.
“Calling All Angels” makes one other appearance in the episode, playing over the ending credits immediately following the heartbreaking break-up scene between Ruth and her second husband, George (James Cromwell). Viewers otherwise unfamiliar with the song, however, might not catch that it is even the same one from earlier. The section of the song used for this last minute of credit scroll contains none of the chorus, but is instead taken from a verse that makes no reference to the song’s title or chorus refrain. What is odd about this selection, however, is not that the episode’s handlers did not make the obvious choice of simply playing the chorus of Siberry’s version of the song over the credits, but the fact that the song is playing over the credits at all. Nearly every other episode of Six Feet Under concluded with a bit of musical score played over the end credits, making this particular deviation a notably rare one.
Despite making the song the centerpiece of a scene, did the episode’s handlers perhaps want to give it an encore, bending their own traditions in order to grant the song a proper introduction to an audience that, more than likely, was previously unfamiliar with it? Or does it have something to do with the lyrical passage contained in the fragment of music selected to play this episode out:
And every day you gaze upon the sunset with such love and intensity.
Why, it’s almost as if you could only crack the code
then you’d finally understand what this all means.
Ah, but if you could, do you think you would
trade in all the pain and suffering?
Ah, but then you’d miss the beauty of the light upon this earth
and the sweetness of the leaving.
Does any other piece of popular music in existence sum up Six Feet Under‘s unique, messy brand of humanism with more eloquence than this lyric? A show about people who live ensconced in death, trying to offer solace to the grieving while navigating the choppy waters of their own often hopelessly screwed up lives, Six Feet Under never flinched from exposing humanity in its most harrowing moments, or the natures of its characters at their most brutally flawed. If watching the Fishers for five years often felt like being aboard an emotional rollercoaster that offered far more frequent valleys than peaks, the culminating effect of Six Feet Under was ultimately hopeful, finding real value in the experiences of lives worth living despite whatever tragedies are inflicted upon us or that we inflict upon ourselves. Few artworks in history, and far fewer in television, walked this particular tightrope between hope and despair with such breathtaking agility and emotional honesty as Six Feet Under did during its five miraculous years on the air. And it did so often with the help of a great soundtrack.