Six Feet Under

Now that Six Feet Under is over, I feel I understand it. Following the death of Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) in the first episode, the lives of his family spiraled out of control for five seasons. But the finale showed that they eventually did come to terms with the inevitability of death.

Traditional drama often concerns repression, the burial of emotion under the mundane. In contrast, Six Feet Under was a kind of shock therapy, forcing emotions up to the surface so often and so violently that they begin to seem mundane. The lack of delicacy with which it sets about this task is easy to mistake for exploitation. Where other shows hint, this one acts out.

Triumphantly melodramatic, the series turned its characters inside out. By the end, these contortions seemed mostly worked out: Ruth (Frances Conroy) always suffered most, in direct proportion to her denial of her own desires as well as those of people closest to her. The upshot to all her loss and turmoil came when she regained control over her life, moving in with her sister (Patricia Clarkson) and apart from her emotionally and mentally stymied boyfriend, George (James Cromwell). David (Michael C. Hall) reconciled his homosexuality with his new role as the Fisher patriarch. Claire (Lauren Ambrose) was back on the path to being an artist after one last bout of total confusion. Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths), who married into the family in the beginning of the season, overcame her chronic self-loathing enough to embrace her newborn child. And Nate (Peter Krause) was still dead (though this didn’t shut him up).

As longtime viewers of the show can attest, none of these resolutions have come easily or cleanly. Nothing short of death, betrayal, or tearful, screaming revelation seems enough to push these characters out of their behavior patterns. The series rejects the usual requirements of “quality drama,” things like “good taste,” “restraint,” and “subtlety.” In their place are plot devices that would be at home on an adventurous daytime soap: the conspiracy around the death of Nate’s ex-wife Lisa in Season Four, Nate’s cosmic near-death experience in Season Three, Brenda’s forays into group sex in Two. Few shows have the nerve to deal so earnestly with what might be dismissed as camp.

Also disturbing for some viewers was the series’ dark sense of humor. Owing in part to creator Alan Ball’s background in sitcom writing, it incisively pursues the awkward laugh. Consider the opening death scene that kicks off “A Coat of White Primer,” where a nervous young woman finally works up the courage to tell the people in her life how she feels about them. It’s a hilarious sequence, right up until her husband accidentally tosses her onto the pointy end of the brass andirons by his fireplace.

Or more notoriously, in last season’s “That’s My Dog,” we laugh at David’s funny, charming hitchhiker (Michael Weston), then find that even after he’s turned psycho, he’s still funny and charming. The entire horrific ordeal was delivered with perfect comic timing, from the forced crack smoking to David’s completely inappropriate sexual fantasy. The humor took on a masochistic bent, as if we were laughing at our own attachment to David, somehow getting off on his brush with death. Like him, we became vulnerable. Is it any wonder audiences felt abused?

Comedy isn’t the series’ only flirtation with different genres. The “hauntings” were gloomier than usual this season, more blatantly Gothic. When the series began, the dead’s reappearances appeared vague and mysterious, but it soon became clear that they were psychological manifestations of the living’s interior conflicts. At its best, this device was eerie. But it could also be heavy-handed, as when David’s dead father sets the “ghost” of his attacker on him, the red-hooded menace who stalked him all season. The scene goes from mid-grade CGI monster effects to a Luke Skywalker moment when David reveals his attacker as… himself. Cue laugh track?

But this willingness to go all the way over the top made plain the extent of the series’ savvy connecting of the silly and the serious. The arbitrary nature of death matched the unexpected inclusion of bizarre elements: the hallucinations, the ghostly visitations, the use of comedy. These “quirky” touches identify the show by virtue of their very inappropriateness.

This strained, alternately cumbersome and exhilarating balancing of extremes is rarely found outside of theatre. Six Feet Under lacked only that medium’s distance, replacing it with the flexibility and intimacy of television. In short, it did what melodrama is supposed to do, which is to heighten and externalize emotional states until they become unbearably obvious, forcing us into direct confrontation with the unacknowledged parts of ourselves.

Melodrama becomes trite when one either feels contempt for the characters or must endure transparent moralizing. Six Feet Under is guilty, slightly, of the latter. But its only consistent moral imperative concerns responsibility for one’s desires and actions. Most of the Fishers’ lasting problems resulted when they gave up their ability to choose, or when they accepted responsibility for things for which they were not actually responsible. But all they are responsible for, the series proposed at last, was support of one another during crises.

Six Feet Under followed a logic of character development, not moral retribution. No one got what he deserved. Rather, the Fishers got exactly what they needed (almost never what they wanted), and that was to face their mortality, so that they could live freely.

Until, of course, they died. The last sequence, a music video montage of each character’s eventual death, provided the closure the series prepared us for all along. Simultaneously poignant and ridiculous, each actor appeared embalmed in eerie aged makeup and keeled over, one by one. Reminiscent of the regular opening deaths for each episode, these images offered no last-minute soliloquies, only occasional dignity, the fade-to-white obituary the closest thing to redemption we saw. Yet the music was exultant, the tone far from funereal. The juxtapositions running through this closing scene, like those in the rest of the series, were never quite assuring; they even bordered on the absurd. For all its toying with “heightened realism,” Six Feet Under‘s final comment on life was a celebration of the saddest, least comfortable reality of all: imperfection.