Living the Scream: How ‘Six Feet Under’ Woke TV from the Dream

Once upon a time in a previous century not that long ago, TV was the land to live in: perfect, ideal, ceaselessly beautiful, free from serious complication. Everyone was sexy, problems compacted and solved inside the hour. Life through the televisual looking glass — like the magnified, aspirational homes its fictional characters inhabited, regardless of salary — was cosy, plush, and wanted for nothing.

Flick across the millennium, though, and TV’s rose-tinted lens has well and truly cracked. With primetime dramas like Dexter or Weeds, life over the 21st Century cathode-ray is no rainbow: darker, edgy, and infinitely more dangerous. Your brother is a serial-killer, and the single-mom opposite slings reefer. Even trusted guardian angels are fallen — or high, if you’re Nurse Jackie, ripped on Oxy — and breadline teachers get by cooking meth (Breaking Bad) or whoring (Hung). Somehow, somewhere down the schedules, our fantasy life got funeral parlour grim. We’ve dumped aspiration for angst and TV land has become less about Living the Dream, more a case of — with reference to Edvard Munch’s iconic existentialist painting of the same name — living The Scream.

So what happened? In short: Six Feet Under. Granted there’s an obvious developmental line in recent TV history to consider first, seared by The Sopranos, that fire-balling, new dawn moment at which television drama finally rose of age. Pre-Sopranos, small-screen entertainment had endured decades as the lowly square to cinema’s bolder, broader framework. Yet by its first season finale, The Sopranos had revolutionised television drama into becoming, arguably, the most compelling, exciting and adventurous popular art-form going — reducing Hollywood to spectacle, competing for our attentions with plastic 3D goggles and 4D aroma-scope.

Alan Ball

All things considered it’s arguable that Six Feet Under, as HBO’s next series project, was to cast a greater, darker and more enduring shadow across primetime. Created by Alan Ball and a pick-up on themes previously explored in his hit movie, American Beauty (as Roxy Music once reflected: “in every dream home a heartache”), Six Feet Under debuted in America in June of 2001, a full two years after Tony Soprano rebooted the gangster figure by displacing him, literally and spiritually, up an everyday suburban cul-de-sac. But where The Sopranos delivered a powerful family drama, while underplaying its critique on American culture — mafia as analogy for contemporary politics: a mercurial and corrupted financial dereliction — the coup of Six Feet Under was to flip that balance.

Picking up on and magnifying Tony Soprano’s existential angst, Six Feet Under went straight for the throat of the American Dream, daring to suggest it less an ongoing embarrassment of riches, more a shame-filled endurance of unease. From there on in, viewers could forget the pantomime of 1980s television like Dallas or Dynasty — all tycoons and baronesses, tomfooling through high-camp shenanigans — because Six Feet Under and subsequent shows like Breaking Bad, Weeds and Hung would concern themselves with a worrying ticking noise coming from within the heart of the average nuclear family. In the pursuit of great drama, Six Feet Under and its progeny dialed down the background noise and tracked-in for the meltdown; the ensuing family fallouts proving less about melodrama, and more a very necessary parable on how the everyday American way was imploding. All of which would end up translating into funeral parlours and serial killers, drug-dealers, addicted sociopathic nurses, and hookers. Sleep of reason, as they say, produces monsters.

American Gothic

Stepping back to the start of the 19th century for a moment where, before the invention of motion pictures (and aside from churches), paintings or galleries were the only real source of shared visuals, the Spanish artist Goya famously etched The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (left). At the time, his country was suffering under poor rule, resulting in numerous — needless — conflicts with neighbouring European states. His suggestion being that when political reasoning sleeps, the outcome can only lead to nightmares — in Spain’s case, war, with death, fear, and famine its manifested monsters. Cut forward to the mid-20th century Spanish Civil War massacre at Guernica, and Spain’s other art master, Picasso, would flip the same phrase to justify his work having become abstract. In times of brutality and extreme barbarism, Pablo argued, conventional words or images just weren’t potent enough: only unconventional ideas could express unimaginable madness.

Here and now, though, with television dramas like Six Feet Under and its successors having surpassed cinema to become our primary storyteller — taking on the responsibility for creating and acting out our modern myths, suitably polarised with hero and villain figures — the latest boogie-man is less simple to define. We’re beyond John Wayne’s black & white days of good versus very-obviously-evil, not least because — simply put — the ogre of our current age is that which we created in our very own image: modern life itself. You can forget about marauding forces waving flags as the bad guys, because things going bump in the economy has become the new proverbial enemy at our front-gates, with 24-hour media news stoking our fears: of spiking interest rates, ripped by the jaws of escalating oil and energy prices; or flat-lined job security offering no defence against that contemporary twist on the home invasion: mortgage foreclosure.

Into the brewing storm of which pitched Six Feet Under, with its tribulations of the none-more-fractious Fisher clan, trapped by the vaguely loyal push-and-pull of their family union, but equally under siege from the ravaging demands of the outside world. While the show’s mortality factor is well served — perched, as the family is, atop death’s literal showroom: a funeral business downstairs — the muted colours and the simplicity of the Fishers’ surroundings reveal the show to be an analogy: of the traditional puritan family, struggling to survive out on the asphalt plains of suburban Los Angeles, exposed to the lawlessness of wild Western consumerism.

Caught somewhere between The Waltons and the sombre figures in Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting — all to a trip-hop soundtrack — the Fishers struggle to forge the expected family unit out of the unexpected mess they’ve all woken up to (following the elder Nate Fisher’s death), all the while staving off hostile business takeovers from faceless corporations, and the corrupting temptations of all that life at our cutting edge of evolution has to offer. As with Ruth, who will try anything — from gambling, to shoplifting, to various romantic affairs — to plug her widow’s grief and distract from her feelings of irrelevance as a redundant mother. In the absence of God, the only salvation on offer to the Fishers comes as modern love — and sex — in which all of them become embroiled and conflicted, most obvious of all, the assumed-vanilla younger son, David, who wrestles with the shame of his homosexuality and the attentions of his on-off-on partner Keith, his “Super Black Sex Cop” (as hilariously dubbed by his sister, Claire).

A single weave off of basket cases

With all its main characters single weave off of basket cases, Six Feet Under delivered on the idea that primetime TV didn’t have to present simplistic, neon-bright tones to entertain – that audiences could still find much to love in morally ambiguous characters despite heaped-on gloom. And in doing so, it cleared the way for subsequent, airier shows to be, ironically, much darker; each driven by lead characters navigating ever further beyond the pale.

Cases in point: Dexter, probably the most globally successful American drama right now — with its oxymoronic conceit, centring as it does on “a loveable serial-killer” — plus the lower-billing but arguably stronger Breaking Bad, both of which contain narrative elements far crueller than Six Feet Under ever was. Or take Hung, Nurse Jackie and Weeds: all sold as humorous black comedies, despite mining heavyweight conceits relating to male prostitution, drug addiction and dealing, respectively. Bluntly — and minus paedophilia — primetime TV currently lines up like an identity parade of society’s leading dirty great monsters; place any of their characters in reality and on local news, and the neighbourhood would explode in a frenzy of blazing pitchforks overnight.

In our morally and economically challenged times, where corruption in politics and finance seems to have become standard, and the conventional road-map to navigating life has been replaced with the suggestion we either live like millionaire celebrities or we’re somehow failing — with reason asleep — our dreams through television have turned towards our current monstrous heroes, simply because they can take drastic, fantastical steps to solve our social frustrations, slay our everyday demons, just as we would if we weren’t so cautious (or, like Dexter Morgan, barely repressed psychopaths).

Hence, cut-adrift-in-suburbia Nancy from Weeds takes to the illegal-drugs trade. More than just a dealer slinging (according to Snoop Dogg) “MILF weed”, as that connotation would suggest Nancy is also — sanctity of all sanctities — a mother. Socially-speaking, that’s some major loose-tooth-tonguing right there: the idea that a soccer-mom who loves her kids could — with the same loving hands — just as easily bag and peddle drugs bucks serious convention. In fact, the only reason she got into primetime reefer-madness in the first place was because, having become suddenly widowed and lacking any discernable professional skills, Nancy was desperate to feed and clothe her kids.

Ditto Breaking Bad: not only is the show’s central character, the otherwise innocuous suburban husband and father, Walter, involved with drug-dealing, but the panic of having to leave provision for his pregnant wife and disabled son, before he dies from cancer, has driven him snake-belly-low: into the methamphetamine business. And if that wasn’t bad enough, not only does he profit from the sale of crank — that none more corrosive narcotic-as-plague for our times — but Walter also manufactures the darn stuff, too. And being a high-school chemistry teacher with low self-esteem issues, he gains pride from being good at it, too.

Despite taking to such dubious roads, our primetime shows still offer positive resolutions, though: Nancy from Weeds, as with Dexter in his show and Tom (and his cookie-baking pimp, Tanya) in Hung, all discover their snotty neighbours — the ones they are so concerned about not measuring up against — are, once the proverbial hits the fan, far from humble, way more shallow, confused and ultimately prove pathetic. As the Lizard King once revealed, “People are strange, when you’re a stranger”. A gigolo Tom from Hung may well be, but at least he’s not like his neighbours — emotionally starved to the extent where they must seek out the hired-in affections of a prostitute like him. Furthermore, Nancy, as Weeds plays out, finds herself actually becoming responsible for a growing gang of her hilariously juvenile neighbours and customers, which helps her realise she’s made of far sterner stuff than she ever realised before her life collapsed. To paraphrase Kipling, “Nancy, if you can keep your head when all about you your neighbours are smoking your weed, losing their grip and blaming it on you, you’ll be a strong woman.”

Back in the 1980s, escapism was a word bandied around a great deal, but which has since fallen from favour, perhaps because it makes things sound frivolous. Yet escapism is why we seek out entertainment in the first place — it’s what it exists to provide. And right now, what shows like Dexter or Weeds or Hung are doing is allowing us to fantasize about breaking free — all the while illuminating what life can descend to if we choose the easy road instead of seeking out proper solutions.

Because, despite such shows also helping us to value our individual quirks as our simultaneous worth, real-life, inevitably, also comes with a thing called consequences attached — and, as Uncle Ben once said (Peter Parker’s grandpa, not the rice guy), “With great powers, comes great responsibility.” Besides, these are all fairytales we’re talking about, after all; no less fantastical than magic beans as a hitch-up to riches in the sky.

Right now our real problems are defunct systems — of faith and of consumerism, through unregulated financial services and failed politics, to the consequences of rolled-back government translating as lack of care for our needy. And while no-one would seriously advocate serial-murder, meth cooking or hooking as means to better ends, as a society, we’re clearly dreaming of abstract solutions to our abject concerns. Let’s just hope reason kicks back in soon.