Six Feet Under – a series review

Six Feet Under, created and written by Alan Ball, is a TV series than ran for five seasons between 2001 and 2005 and is currently streaming on HBO. In its time, it won numerous awards: nine Emmies, three Screen Actor Guild Awards, three Golden Globes and a Peabody Award.  It is reputedly one of the best and highest rated series to have ever been shown on television. People are not just buried six feet down but six feet under where the turmoil of primal emotions are also buried against a backdrop of psychoanalysts in the role of grave robbers of psychic souls.

We just watched the first two seasons and the beginning of the third season. In one sense, it is odd writing a review of a show broadcast two decades ago. But since the series is a rather macabre one that takes place in a funeral home in Los Angeles where death is set against the background of ocean, hills and magnificent weather of what was then regarded as paradise before the area was ravaged by fire and floods, a retrospective may be in order. Especially when the viewer only gets occasional glimpses of paradise and the foreground is filled with mundane ordinariness, dead bodies, and kinky sex before the episodes revert back to ordinary psychological and social catastrophic liaisons. In fact, it is the juxtaposition of the mundane and the mad, of ordinary life and dysfunctional relationships, of the secular and the sacred, that gives this series its power.

Each episode begins with another death, usually of a life terminated by sheer accident prematurely. In one funeral, a three-week-old baby expired from SIBS (sudden infant death syndrome) or crib death. The first death is that of old man Fisher (Richard Jenkins), the owner and director of the funeral home. He will haunt the rest of the series as a ghostly presence in the memory of his widow and three children and as a projection of their ruminations and worries about their current problems. The manner of the death initiating each episode and the persona of the individual who died set the theme and background for that show.

The oldest child, and the most normal individual in the series centred on the Fisher & Sons funeral home, is Nate Fisher played by Peter Krause. Though he had appeared in a plethora of shows and series in the nineties, I only saw him in one other black comedy, The Truman Show (1998), but he did not have a major role. Peter Krause received three Emmy nominations for his role as Nate Fisher in Six Feet Under. As well, he has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, and seven Screen Actors Guild Awards. I do not recall ever seeing one of the many series in which he subsequently starred.

In Six Foot Under, he plays the son of an uptight mother and widow, Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy). He is also the older brother of David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) and a teenaged sister, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), who is full of the anxieties and uncertainties during that rite of passage in one’s life. David Fisher, as the brother who stayed in the funeral business with his father, is as picture perfect and straight as his mother, except he turns out to be gay. The first several years of the show often deal with his struggles with that identity and his growing warm relationship with his brother, Nate, who reluctantly also became a funeral director following the death of their father.

Nate Fisher develops a deep love interest in Rachel Griffiths (Brenda Chenowith) who has a very high IQ, a troubled history as the child of two crazy psychoanalysts, including the mother, Joanna Cassidy who plays Margaret Chenowith. Brenda is also the heroine of a study by a different psychoanalyst and a best-selling book. Needless to say, her life unfolds in relationship to the ordinary Nate Fisher in extraordinary paths complicated by wayward experiments with kinky sex.

The juxtaposition of the mad and mundane are evident in two very contrasting side characters, Keith, a black cop who is a centre of solidity even as he increasingly shows signs of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) after he inadvertently kills an armed man harassing and threatening that man’s girlfriend and beats up a “wife’ beater who, contrary to any impression (or credibility for that matter), is claimed to be an ecological genius. At the other end of the spectrum is Brenda’s brother Billy who suffers from bipolar disorder. Other characters appear, such as Gabriel Dimas (Eric Balfour), another troubled teenager and friend of Claire who reveals himself to be a druggie and borderline sociopath. Madness, death and deep devotional love entail two rather than six degrees of separation.

The series is not “ha, ha” hilarious. The laughs are quiet but as disturbing as they are revealing. For the glaring sunlight of Los Angeles has some very dark moments that crash against the sublime Pacific shore. One is always on edge as the dangerous and hidden undercurrents reveal themselves in the different sub-cultures that characterize LA – whether of ancient and wild hippies, members of a relatively sane motorcycle gang, a bizarre sex club or of a Jewish community struck by an unintended suicide and then put to the acid test by an inappropriate stand-up comic at the shiva of his deceased entertainment lawyer.

Nothing will be as it seems, particularly the prettified corpses of the bodies being prepared for burial primarily by Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez), the mortician artist charged with restoring the dead to look like the one who had just lived even as each one lies still in their very different coffins. This Puerto Rican and “artistic” live wire with a wife and two young children is the marker of everyday life in a churning sea of morbidity and mania, delirium and derangement.

The series bounces back between humour and compassion all underwritten by a very intelligent and perceptive script. But I doubt if that was sustained for the full five seasons, though it may have been. In any case, I may return to at least watch the last episode, reputedly the best finale of a television series ever, evidently a projection forward to the inevitable death of each character. However, I gave up at the beginning of the third season when the episodes appeared more and more contrived rather than compelling and the twists and turns seemed arbitrary rather than following the natural curves of Highway One running down the coast of California.

The setting and the events ensure that death always remained as the central theme and the foremost subject of consciousness of the ensemble cast. But it is not just death. The meditations are also macambre, for the fear of death haunts everyone in the series and their everyday efforts to escape its embrace. Each episode is a reminder of how transient our lives are, how subject they are to contingency and serendipity. As we meditate on the themes, we never lose sight of our mortality, though the series is suffused with morbidity even more than with our pursuit of self-destruction marked by an excessive deeply-rooted gloom and sense of our fragility as we all lead lives of disquieting desperation.

In the first two seasons, the episodes became deeper and darker at the same time as they became more droll. The self-mockery and dry humour provided the comic relief and the ghost of the Fisher father’s wry sense of humour and commentary on the follies and foolishness of ordinary life lightened the dark clouds – death put in service of life.  The series sprinkles the episodes of poignant drama with salt and pepper sardonic humor and heartrending sentiment.

Death is the subject matter, not dying. The series is NOT primarily about the suffering that very often precedes death, though a very few episodes have this as their focus. Pain is otherwise generally eschewed. Juxtaposed are not pleasure and pain but life and desire, the former imbued with the fear of mortality and the latter with the search for eternity and immortality. Desire mediates the two poles. But desire belongs to this world and is imbued with social assumptions and prejudices that throw the tension askew. Los Angeles seems to be characterized as a geo-political locale that has lost any magnetic compass let alone a moral one.

At one time in the series, I lost it – in the episode mentioned above that began with the baby who dies at three weeks from sids, sudden infant death syndrome. I burst into tears. The memory came back of myself in the delivery room in Mount Sinai Hospital when my son Gabriel emerged from the womb as a droopy white rag. I think I fainted, but I can no longer remember. It took an eternity that lasted at most a few minutes for the doctors to bring him back to life and I, never mind Gabriel, could breathe again.

Can you possibly imagine meeting with funeral directors to plan your infant son’s internment? The series does so with sensitivity and nuance.

But none of the above is why I write about the series. Rather, my conviction is that Six Feet Under marked a turning point when America repeated the mistakes of Vietnam and went to war in Iraq under the pretense of finding weapons of mass destruction and, even worse, into Afghanistan which Barack Obama had labeled as the right war in contrast to Iraq. America would reveal itself as a unipolar power incapable of exercising that power to help nations rebuild. This was the period when the dream of America as leader of the free world began to sink into an abyss and that vision was buried under the preoccupation with personal and interpersonal psychological and social dramas as the collectivity began to fragment and implode.

America itself was being buried six feet under.


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