‘Your Whole Life Is Leading Up to This’: Developing ‘Six Feet Under’ at HBO

Six Feet Under’s premiere in June 2001 has been celebrated as a breakthrough in television drama. Building off Home Box Office’s freedoms as a subscription cable channel to provide high-quality programming to justify premium value, it added to a run of series that included Sex and the City (1998-2004) and The Sopranos (1999-2007). However, while significant attention has been paid to Six Feet Under’s authorship by Alan Ball and its breaking of television drama conventions, little has been made of how it fit into more specific programming strategies on HBO. This essay will provide a brief outline of how Six Feet Under tied into the development of series dramas and comedies on the channel since the mid-1990s, and will particularly focus on the importance of the anthology format and independent film production.

Original programming was a marginal part of HBO’s schedule from its 1972 launch to the mid-1990s. Primarily defined by an uncut service of films and sporting events, originals represented an important way of distinguishing the channel, but remained a side-line into the 1990s. Notable exceptions included comedy series such as Not Necessarily the News (1983-1991), anthologies Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996) and the monthly production of documentaries, specials and original films of varying quality.

During the 1990s, with cable channels increasingly pressured to differentiate themselves against rising competition and the promise of new digital distribution, original production expanded across leading brands. HBO further distinguished itself in this period through late-night comedy series The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1996), which demonstrated how cable series, free from advertising and censorship constraints, could compete with broadcast rivals for ratings and awards. Six Feet Under’s development, however, would come through a more focused effort from 1995 to make original programming a key feature of the HBO brand, justifying the channel’s bold new slogan “It’s Not TV: It’s HBO.”

Six Feet Under is typically viewed as part of a wave of key series from the mid-1990s that defined HBO as a leader in quality drama and comedy by 2001. This began with explicit prison drama Oz (1997-2003), was followed by breakout comedy Sex and the City and was confirmed by the genre-busting The Sopranos, and the more cult success of Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present). Often viewed as picking up the mantle of quality broadcast networks like CBS in the 1970s, or NBC in the 1980s, HBO marketed itself as the home for creator-driven, formally complex series programming. Designed to attract affluent audiences willing to pay extra for subscriptions, or to purchase branded programs on DVD and other platforms, Six Feet Under developed key appeals from Oz, Sex and the City and The Sopranos.

These included the marketing of the creative vision of head writer and producer Alan Ball, building on the successful promotion of Tom Fontana, Darren Star and David Chase. Moreover, Six Feet Under’s bold treatment of family, death and sex within a twisted Californian setting extended HBO’s brand identification with contemporary American life. Amped up sexuality, violence and addiction added further extremes to the content boundaries pushed by earlier series, with Ball noting how HBO executive Carolyn Strauss asked him to ‘fuck things up’ a bit more in production. Like its fellow HBO series, Six Feet Under blurred genre categories, merging elements of soap opera and serialized broadcast dramas alongside nods to art-house cinema and modernist theater. Wrapping serial storylines around the Fisher family, individual episodes also focused on individual deaths, providing self-contained impact.

Dark, pessimistic family scenes, explicit relationships and the incorporation of dreams, flashbacks and drug-induced visions gave the series a look and feel distinct from most other shows on network or cable television. In this way, Six Feet Under pushed experiments on HBO with cinematic style to new degrees, employing extreme depth of field, extended takes and richly detailed mise-en-scene and production design. Cinematographer Alan Caso described this style as defiantly ‘anti-television,’ giving the show a signature appeal that complemented its family psychodrama and exploration of grief. Taken together, the series’ premiere was a further statement of risk from a channel that had built a heavyweight reputation for risk in series production by 2001, setting the bar to which broadcast and cable rivals would aspire to over the next ten years.

By Six Feet Under’s completion in 2005, it had won consistent praise (if not always Sopranos-sized audiences). Its art-film style, and meditative, slow-paced drama can be seen across everything from AMC’s Mad Men (2007-present) to HBO’s own success with Big Love (2006-present) and the pushing of content and form across the industry. However, telling the story of its development through the context of a few key HBO series and a general focus on risk-taking content and creative freedom only scratches at the surface of the programming decisions that led to its 2001 premiere. The rest of this essay will outline how key features of the series, from its narrative structure to its style and thematic concerns can be linked to trends for anthology formats and crossovers with New York independent film production on HBO from the mid-1990s.

Anthologies and New York Indies

One of Six Feet Under’s most striking features, particularly in its first season, is the use of dead characters to provide commentary on the living characters. This notably includes Frederico’s haunting by a Latino gang member in “Familia” (1.03), forcing him to confront his own family anxieties, as well as porn star Viveca St. John’s pressuring of David Fisher’s closeted homosexuality (“An Open Book” 1.05). Used most often as a teaser to the main action, and as recurring conversations throughout episodes, this narrative strategy arguably grew out of the long-term use of the anthology on HBO. The format, with its reliance on episodes and limited series or miniseries that could be extensively rescheduled within subscription scheduling, underpinned various programming experiments across the channel, from documentaries to late-night erotica. It was also possible to repackage individual episodes into feature-length specials, while using hosts to link together thematic consistencies. The latter was a notable feature of early HBO anthologies like The Hitchhiker (1983-1987) and Tales from the Crypt.

The success of the anthology format similarly crossed into HBO’s production of original films, first as HBO Premiere Films from 1983, then as HBO Pictures and HBO Showcase from 1986. While the former relied on a mix of prestige biopics, docudramas and genre material, Showcase targeted more specialized collaborations with American independent filmmakers, British producers and New York theatre talent. By the early 1990s, Showcase crossed over to anthology series trends with anthology films such as Women & Men: True Stories of Seduction (1991) and the grittier contemporary drama Prison Stories; Women on the Inside (1991). In 1996, with HBO investing more in its original programming brand, Showcase was rebranded as HBO NYC Productions, and looked to build on a pool of New York independent talent as what Harvey Weinstein later described as the “Miramax” of television.

Both trends came together from 1997 to provide the most immediate contexts for Six Feet Under’s production and ongoing success. This began with the commissioning of Oz as an eight-episode season. The prison drama built on many anthology conventions, from a single narrator in prisoner Augustus Hill to episodes focusing on a single theme. Moreover, Oz tied into a number of HBO NYC films that summer, including art-house-style anthology SubWay Stories, and prison dramas like First-Time Felon. Format links across the channel were also extended during the summer of 1997 by some mixed experiments with adult-themed animation. While Todd McFarlane’s Spawn was successful enough to last for three years, cult animator Ralph Bakshi’s sex-and-science-fiction-themed Spicy City was critically derided. Both series however shared an anthology format, with hosts and thematically structured episodes.

An integration of anthology formats and ties to New York independent cinema reached new levels in 1998 with Sex and the City. Although the series and its film spin-offs became increasingly glossy, its first year was a lot grittier, shooting in 16mm and hiring New York directors such as Nicole Holofcener and Susan Seidelman. Moreover, Carrie acts as a more prominent narrator, directly addressing the audience in most episodes. Several directors also moved between Oz and the series, while the two shared production facilities in Queens. During the same year, HBO’s production of epic miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, the forerunner to Band of Brothers, also featured an anthology structure. Each episode deals with a different stage and perspective on the NASA space race, while Tom Hanks acts as an overall narrator.

By 1999, the evolution of anthology trends and ties to New York independent film came to a head with The Sopranos. On the one hand, the gangster drama was the result of David Chase’s desire to challenge everything he hated about broadcast television, from advertising pressure to easy narrative resolutions and a two-dimensional visual style. However, it was also firmly rooted in existing program cycles. In terms of the anthology format, the series’ first season mixes serial story-lines with individual episodes that organize around sessions between Tony Soprano and psychiatrist Dr. Melfi. Providing a running commentary and context for Tony’s actions, these fulfilled anthology conventions. Moreover, the stylish look of the series and its immersion in the grit of New Jersey sustained HBO’s reliance on New York producers. That year HBO Pictures and NYC were merged into HBO Films to consolidate talent and expand the reach of the brand. Film production crossovers had reached new levels in 1999, most notably through a number of gangster-themed films. These included historical gangster sagas Lansky, Vengeance and Excellent Cadavers and contemporary family drama Witness Protection.

Six Feet Under’s development in 2000 and 2001 drew from the success of these series, as well as new programming successes. These included the anthology-structured miniseries The Corner (2000), a precursor to The Wire (2002-2008) by David Simon, as well as Curb Your Enthusiasm with episodes built around self-contained incidents. The previously noted use of the dead to provide character commentary saw Six Feet Under continue this tradition, offsetting the series’ more extended family plotlines. The visiting dead in each episode arguably offer a similar, blackly comic role to Augustus Hill, Carrie Bradshaw and Dr. Melfi as narrative commentators, providing thematic context and wry asides to family struggles. The recurring use of a single dominant narrator in Nathaniel Fisher Sr. from the pilot episode also provides the basis for a longer-term contextualization of family struggles, often providing much-needed perspective and ultimately acceptance as the Fishers’ struggle through the subsequent four seasons. The anthology format structure therefore retained strengths in enabling the flexibility of individual HBO episodes as self-contained events, similar in scale and structure to short films.

While moving production to Los Angeles from New York, the series continued to rely on independent film directors such as Miguel Arteta, as well as playwrights such as Kate Robin. Theatre influences also expanded from existing series, from the principle cast to episodes’ reliance on deep staging and elaborate sets. In 2001 this significantly overlapped with HBO Films through two film productions that book-ended Six Feet Under’s June premiere. In March, Mike Nichols’ Wit, which went on to win that year’s Emmy for Best Original Film, provides a stark portrait of the death of an English professor from cancer. It uses direct address, flashbacks and dreams, while adapting an award-winning play. This was followed in July by the Norman Jewison-directed Dinner with Friends, an intimate family drama driven by flashbacks that was similarly adapted from a Donald Margulies play.

While there is a lot more to this story, it is important to consider Six Feet Under’s distinctive features as part of much longer programming strategies on HBO, and to move beyond typical discussions of the channel’s creative risks. There were arguably deliberate, now-overlooked historical trends that set up the series, making Six Feet Under as much a variation as a reinvention of HBO and other television formats. This process would be continued across later series, from The Wire’s debt to HBO’s documentaries to the crossovers between Six Feet Under and 2003 miniseries Angels in America. Too often these contexts are lost when discussing the impact of HBO, and while not taking away from Six Feet Under’s individual strengths, remembering its part in the channel’s wider history is crucial to appreciating its success.