I’m going to die. It’s really no big deal; so are you. And so are your loved ones, neighbors, coworkers, and even your enemies. Some of us will be fortunate enough to die peacefully in our sleep, while others will die in car, plane or other accidents. Too many will linger on painfully, and some will be gone so quickly they will never realize that their hearts just stopped. No matter how it happens, we’re all going to wind up six feet under.
Death, how it happens and how we react when it does, is the major theme of Alan Ball’s exceptional new HBO drama Six Feet Under. The series explores the relationship of the Fisher family, owners of the Fisher and Sons Funeral Home. When father Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) dies in a freak accident—he’s driving his hearse when it’s smashed by a bus—the family who has made a living out of comforting others in their times of grief must suddenly deal with the myriad of issues and emotions that accompany an unexpected death. The accident completely alters what was to be a brief Christmas visit home by son Nate (Peter Krause), the rebel son who fled the family business and now lives miles away in Seattle, leaving the director’s job to his younger brother, David (Michael C. Hall). Though David had plans to go to law school, he gave them up to attend mortuary school and apprentice with his father.
Reaching from beyond the grave to reunite his family, Nathaniel has left the business not to David, but split evenly between the brothers. Nate doesn’t want the business and David doesn’t want Nate around. The boys’ mother, Ruth (Frances Conroy), is no help. Now free to pursue openly the relationship she had been having in secret, Ruth views her husband’s death as permission to start having “fun,” meeting her lover for hikes and going to the track with her best friend, where she blows a quick $25,000 of her insurance settlement. The one obstacle keeping Ruth from leaving behind her home over the mortuary and her bickering sons is her 16-year-old angst-ridden daughter, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), whose few so-called friends are hardly a positive influence. In fact, they have just talked her into smoking crystal meth for the first time when she receives the call notifying her of her father’s death; as a result, she’s a hyperactive wreck through much of the ordeal that follows. Distraught over her father’s death and her much older brother’s sudden return, Claire is even more livid over the fact that her father has left her only a trust fund for college in his will.
Once viewers have been introduced to the Fishers, it becomes obvious that these four people have been “dead” for years, walking through their assigned roles without enthusiasm or joy. Now, with Nathaniel’s death, life has forced itself on the Fisher family. There are decisions to be made as a family, and each of the four has personal issues that must be resolved in light of the changes within the nuclear family. Ruth must contend with her liberation. Nate must decide whether to move home to Pasadena and join the funeral industry, a decision complicated by his involvement with the mysterious Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), whom he met and screwed in the airport upon arriving home. David needs the emotional support of his gay lover Keith (Michael St. Patrick), but wants it without revealing his sexual identity or his relationship to his family. Claire has an on-and-off involvement with a young punk from school, whom she alternately idolizes and mistrusts. And they must all deal with the persistent representative from the “death care” conglomerate who wants to buy out the family business and will not hesitate to ruin the Fishers to do it.
This may sound terribly depressing and tumultuous, but Ball has proven with American Beauty that his unique sense of humor and perspective can lighten the action at the most appropriate times. Flashy models in mock commercials hawking hearses as though they’re the latest sports cars, fantasy dance sequences, conversations with and advice from the dead Nathaniel, and flashbacks of Nate and David’s childhood memories all keep the series from becoming excessively morbid.
Each episode begins with an odd death that eventually causes problems for the brothers. One features the death of the king of an infomercial pyramid scheme, who, it turns out, is broke and has left no money for his funeral, while another episode opens with the death of a factory worker in a huge mixer and whose left foot goes missing while the corpse is in the Fishers’ care. The solutions to these problems are offbeat enough to keep viewers on edge. In the case of the pyramid king, Nate suggests that his widow “rent” a top of the line casket for the service, and then return it to be used again, a move that is illegal and drives David to distraction. As for the missing foot, which Claire has stolen and planted in the school locker of her punk friend as a retaliatory move, the Fishers’ make-up artist Rico (Freddy Rodriguez) has stuck a shoe on a frozen roast and taped it to the body. The deceased’s family is none the wiser, even when the grieving widow hurls herself into the casket with her dead husband.
Obviously, Six Feet Under is not the type of show you will see on network TV. From the provocative opening credits sequence—featuring Thomas Newman’s haunting score and several stark images associated with death—it is clear that this show is too “advanced” for the formulaic structure of most primetime series. Network executives frequently complain that they cannot compete with cable because FCC regulations limit what network shows can do or say. They point to the violence and profanity of The Sopranos and the nudity and adult content of Sex and the City, and cry that they can’t possibly show those sorts of series. But Six Feet Under proves that it is not a lack of ability but a lack of backbone that keeps innovative television off the networks. Despite the show’s subject matter, it shows little violence and no gory bodies. And daytime television has considerably more racy content in terms of sex and nudity than this series.
It seems as though the networks have an underlying belief that the viewing public must be dealt with caution, as though we can not process the burning questions and moral dilemmas dealt with by the Fishers. While networks present death in the form of Diagnosis Murder and the occasional lost patient on ER, HBO has dared to show us death in all its manifestations and the unpredictable consequences of it. Likewise, networks offer Everybody Loves Raymond and Roseanne as if to say, “Aren’t dysfunctional families fun and funny?” Six Feet Under dares to show the discord and anguish that families in crisis must endure, while pointing out that it is not the people at whom we should be laughing, but their extreme conditions. The odd camera angles, dark lighting, and moody music of the show highlight the perceptiveness of the scripts. I don’t mean to imply that the three major networks have never aired compelling stories involving death or family dysfunction, but they haven’t aired a series that deals with those issues in such a straightforward manner. This is the sort of intellectual television that any network could air, but only a few premium cable channels have the balls to try.
Beyond its thematic risk-taking, Six Feet Under relies on the talents of its cast to convey emotional depths. Krause (best known for portraying an anchorman on Sports Night) is dynamic as Nate, the prodigal son trying to work himself back into the family fold. Yet, it is Ruth and David who are the most fascinating characters to watch. At first sight, Ruth resembles Barbara Fitts, Allison Janney’s character in American Beauty, a woman attached to reality and her family by only the slightest of threads, but recently Ruth has emerged, and Conroy is brilliant in her performance of a woman reborn. Hall is every bit her equal as David. This mother and son, dealing with the sudden upending of a predetermined and undesired future, are the perfect embodiment of what death represents, the end of a life lived and the blank staring into whatever it is that comes after that life.
By frequently leaping between heavy drama to comedy to surreal fantasy, Six Feet Under presents us with all that we fear and anticipate about death—uncertainty, confusion, sorrow, celebration, and remembrance. Many people will be turned away by that premise, for death is still a subject that is anathema to many. But this series reminds us that it is a subject we will all deal with, in some form and at a time when we least expect. Six Feet Under makes us think about its implications and how to deal with it, and, more importantly, it helps us to realize what a tragedy a life wasted or spent in conflict can be. There is always hope for a brighter future, in this world or what lies after. I ask you, is that really too controversial for network television?