#10: “Six Feet Under.” [TV Aughtrospective]
January 4, 2010 1 Comment
First and foremost, these shows exploit the strengths of the television medium to their fullest: using the massive number of storytelling hours to develop compelling characters and explore interesting plots and subplots, ultimately allowing us to feel as though we “know” the people who populate their fictional worlds. These shows have something to say — a take on the world that ultimately illuminates the viewer and leaves him in a more enlightened state than he began with. The dramas have the crucial ability to achieve changes in tone, leaving you laughing along one minute and reeling with amazement or sorrow the next. They usually feature original concepts, great ensemble acting, crackling dialogue, visually-stimulating direction, and bold narrative choices.
“Six Feet Under” is an excellent example of all these elements: it is one of the shows that made the aughts a great television era. We put it #10 on our top ten list, because while it was not without its flaws, it was a daring piece of television filmmaking that pushed boundaries, consistently entertained, and provoked some serious emotion.
The story of the Fisher family, proprietors of a Los Angeles funeral home, began abruptly with the death of patriarch Nathaniel Fisher Sr. (Richard Jenkins) in a car crash: his family was left to pick up the pieces and carry on the mortuary business that most of them had profoundly mixed feelings about. As the series developed, viewers joined the Fisher family and their friends on often-troubled journeys of discovery, laughing and struggling with the characters as they sought to confront their demons and achieve happiness in the face of sorrow and death.
If that sounds heavy and maudlin, well, “SFU” often was: but it also had the stones to relentlessly confront troubling issues of life and death, happiness and grief, sexuality and love.
Eldest son Nate (Peter Krause) was forced to acknowledge his natural gift for the family business he had long spurned; his romantic and health problems over the course of the series also caused him to confront his penchant for fleeing emotionally-fraught situations. Nate’s troubled relationships with Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) and Lisa (Lili Taylor) are a central aspect of the series. His brother David (Michael C. Hall) is a closeted, conservative gay man, angry at Nate for leaving home and forcing him to work at Fisher & Sons; as the series develops, he learns to shed his self-hatred and bitterness, to accept who he is and build a lasting relationship with his family, his business, and his partner Keith (Mathew St. Patrick).
Their mother Ruth (Frances Conroy) struggles to relate to her children and her sister after her husband’s death. Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose), the rebellious and artistic youngest child, struggles with “finding herself” and following her artistic impulses through a series of relationships. Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez), Nate Sr.’s protege, rises from his role as an employee of Fisher & Sons to a partner in Fisher & Diaz: his headstrong, impulsive personality often got him into trouble at work and at home, but he was a major asset to the funeral home and the series as a whole.
The show also featured a plethora of fully-realized and compelling supporting characters, superbly acted by talents like James Cromwell, Jeremy Sisto, Patricia Clarkson, Rainn Wilson, Peter Macdissi, and perhaps most notably, Kathy Bates as Ruth’s in-your-face friend Bettina. Many other great actors appeared for a single episode, playing the dead people who conversed with the Fishers as their bodies were prepared for burial: an innovative idea that allowed the writers to make external the characters’ internal thoughts.
At its best, this show was an acting clinic, working from tremendous scripts by the writing team headed by creator Alan Ball. This showdown between Nate and Brenda shows Peter Krause and Rachel Griffiths at the top of their games — as intense as the scene becomes, though, it never loses its nuance. Even as Brenda breaks down in tears at the realization that infidelity and weakness have destroyed her engagement, she still has the poise to spit this gem: “Don’t you throw that ring at me. It’s such a cliche…I’ll barf.”
“Six Feet Under” was always daring in its use of surrealist storytelling. Beyond the conversing-with-dead people conceit already mentioned, “SFU” had several compelling dream sequences, and one very memorable episode in which its characters burst into song:
Black humor was another hallmark of the series. Even when grappling with issues of mortality and loss, “SFU” was often able to lighten the mood with a great laugh. One scene that stands out in that vein is this one, where the Chenowith family fights about how to dispose of Brenda’s father’s ashes:
One front on which this show was arguably groundbreaking was its matter-of-fact presentation of gay topics within the context of a realistic family show. David’s journey towards acceptance of himself, and his relationship with Keith, was the kind of thing you just didn’t see on TV when this show premiered in 2001. What’s great about the treatment of gay issues in “SFU” is that they weren’t addressed in “a very special episode” or as some kind of shallow tokenism: they were part and parcel of the show’s story.
As part of this series, we’ll cite critics, both mainstream and otherwise, in support of our choices. Here’s a great excerpt from Matt Pusateri’s site, mattmedia.net — taken from an argument for “SFU” as the greatest show of ALL TIME:
99% of the time, television is just entertainment. It exists to amuse you, to take your mind off of other concerns and worries, or to make you laugh. It’s hard to imagine a show that can change the way you view life altogether, but that’s exactly how I see HBO’s Six Feet Under. Following the lives of the Fishers, a family that runs a Los Angeles funeral home, the show explored issues of life, death, and the decisions people make in between. What was always brilliant about Six Feet Under is that…it was never about big things — wars, turf battles, an FBI investigation. Instead, Six Feet Under was about the little things in every day life — decisions about relationships, career dilemmas, tensions with family — that everyone can relate to. It showed how painful those small things could be to individuals, and how they often added up to larger problems.
With death as an over-arching theme in the show, there was always a looming reminder that life is short, often shorter than we expect. While that would seem like a depressing theme, ultimately Six Feet Under felt like an affirmation for living life as best you could.
After the five seasons of the series, you watched various characters struggle with big and small life decisions, and the consequences of those choices. And when it was all over, it was hard not to think about your own life and wonder if it should be something different, something better.
It would be remiss to wrap up this homage to “Six Feet Under” without mentioning its brilliant ending (obviously, spoilers come into play here). Many shows have effectively tied up their loose ends, or devised a clever scene to cap off a great series run. “SFU” ended things in a different way, and one wholly in keeping with the concepts and ideas that drove the show from the start. Like the show itself, the conclusion was simply genius.
A superb concept, tremendous acting, excellent writing, and magnificent execution. That’s what our top ten shows of the decade are all about, and each phrase is an accurate descriptor for the memorable and moving “Six Feet Under.”
Introduction and Runners-Up
#10: “Six Feet Under.”
#9: “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
#8: “The Daily Show.”
#7: “South Park.”
#6: “Mad Men.”
#5: “Arrested Development.”
#4: “American Idol.”
#2: “The Sopranos.”
#1: “The Wire.”