Think Big Fisher, Think Different!

Much has been written about the appeal of Alan Ball’s HBO drama Six Feet Under. In the five seasons (2001 -2005) of this singular series set in the unlikely milieu of a family funeral home business, the Fishers — Ruth (Frances Conroy), Nate (Peter Krause), David (Michael C. Hall) and Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) — have necessarily attracted most of the critical attention. The significant role played by spouses, friends, sometime lovers and siblings — Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), Rico (Freddy Rodriguez), Keith (Matthew St. Patrick) and George (James Cromwell) to name a few — accords these figures a form of “central” status and they in turn have garnered their fair share of critical analysis. But Ball’s creation is compelling not simply for complex, beautifully written and realized major characters but in the detailed, equally nuanced delineation of the series’ minor characters. Minor in name only, these figures have a crucial function in Six Feet Under in foregrounding the foibles, dilemmas and defining features of their central counterparts.

In Six Feet Under, “minor” or subsidiary characters take two distinct forms: those who appear only once, as the individual whose death inaugurates each episode; and those with a recurring presence in the series. Ball and his team of co-writers devise endlessly inventive ways of killing off the former, ranging from the banal (an alcoholic suffocates in his own vomit) and perverse (a classic comic book aficionado is crushed to death by the weight of his own collection) to the ludic and ironic (a devout Christian woman mistakes inflatable sex dolls in the sky for an ecstatic vision, runs into traffic and is promptly killed).

Ball noted in a 2001 NPR Interview that the constant presence of death in the Fisher family home throws the lives of individual family members into high relief. These prefatory sequences are therefore intriguing not just in terms of their sheer inventiveness, but because the dead characters offer revealing contrasts and correlatives with the dramas playing out in the lives of the central characters.

A disgruntled young man who shoots three of his work colleagues and then himself challenges the self-righteous Rico to reflect more deeply on the fractious way he relates to his own family and others around him. This is one of the frequent examples of the talking rather than walking undead, where revivified corpses regularly converse with and contest the opinions of the living, particularly the three men whose duty it is to embalm them. Described by Ball as a form of interior monologue, these exchanges allow central characters to express disquieting thoughts and emotions they are unable to articulate to the living.

Nate is constantly struck by the parallels between the troubled family dynamics of the deceased and his own problematic relationships. A son’s detached response to the discovery of his father’s corpse in a wrecked car some 25 years after his disappearance makes Nate consider the nature of his own relationship with his own father, Nathaniel Sr. (Richard Jenkins). The latter’s death, also in a car accident, opens the series and his character is a consistent revenant presence throughout. David’s emotional response to a gay man’s idiosyncratic but profoundly moving tribute to his dead partner makes him question the basis of his own relationship with his partner Keith. In these examples and many more, Ball et al employ the dead to illustrate the quotidian nature of mortality. More importantly, while they feature only briefly at the start of each episode, these minor figures play an integral role in developing issues, themes and storylines in relation to the central characters.

The more traditionally conceived minor characters — those with a recurring presence in the series — make an equally significant contribution to the emotionally complex terrain that distinguishes Six Feet Under. In the 63 episodes that comprise the series, there are numerous, memorable minor characters, from Brenda’s outrageously self-absorbed psychologist mother Margaret Chenowith (Joanna Cassidy) and Claire’s insufferably smug art lecturer Olivier Castro-Staal (Peter Macdissi), to the creepily quirky young live-in apprentice undertaker Arthur Martin (Rainn Wilson). But perhaps the most instructive example of the way in which Ball ensures minor characters have a major impact is found in the feisty figure of Bettina (Kathy Bates).

Appearing in only 10 episodes from 2003 — 2005 (a relatively modest number compared with other minor characters), Bates’ Bettina makes an immediate and lasting impression. First introduced as the abrasive friend of Ruth Fisher’s quixotic younger sister Sarah (another intriguing minor character courtesy of Patricia Clarkson’s compelling performance), Bettina becomes the improbable but firm friend of the reticent Ruth Fisher. Whereas Sarah represents the complete antithesis of everything her older sister believes in — a freewheeling, financially irresponsible hippie with no children and a serious prescription drug addiction — Bettina offers Ruth an alternative model of how a widowed middle-aged woman might live her life. An acerbically straight talking, disconcertingly honest, thrice married bon vivant with a penchant for shoplifting (her self styled socialist redistribution of wealth), Bettina offers the ultimate contrast to the terminally timid Ruth.

Refusing to be cowed by past mistakes or relationship failures, and adopting a tough love approach to family life — children ‘suck you dry’ — Bettina’s infectious positivism has a transformative effect on her new friend. With her exhortation to “Think big Fisher, think different!” Bettina encourages Ruth to indulge in drug taking, drinking, shoplifting, therapeutic massage and a road trip to Mexico amongst other activities. While Bates makes Bettina immensely appealing in her own right, Ball and his co-writers also deploy Bettina to foreground the conflicted nature of Ruth’s character and to initiate some significant changes in her life that subsequently play out over the remaining two seasons of the series. And it is testament to the impact and importance of Bettina’s character in both contexts that she is present in the masterful and profoundly moving penultimate episode and series finale.

In reflecting on his approach in Six Feet Under, Alan Ball has described himself as much more interested in character than plot, and specifically in creating flawed characters who try to make sense of their lives but are “not totally equipped” to do so. The richly layered, Dickensian detail that defines the central characters in Six Feet Under has therefore also been brought to bear on the series’ roll call of idiosyncratic and always intriguing minor characters. Ball and his writing team have ensured that the latter — from the living to the dead and everyone in between — have a significant impact in the series that far outweighs their more limited screen time.