Let’s talk about death.
When thinking about HBO in the early 2000s, most people would conjure up images of “The Sopranos” or “The Wire.” There’s certainly a reason for that. But a third, just as meritorious show often gets left by the wayside.
“Six Feet Under” ran from 2001 to 2005. It follows the Fishers, a dysfunctional family that runs a funeral home, and the life and death that surround them. The brainchild of Alan Ball, the show emerged immediately after the 1999 film “American Beauty,” which he scripted, and runs in a similar vein.
“Six Feet Under” is a drama, but it’s also a comedy. It’s dark, but it’s also earnest. It’s immensely surreal and yet has some of the most realistic depictions of human nature on television. It’s a show that follows its characters as they attempt to cope with broken things: families, relationships, and themselves.
But most importantly, the show is about death, and no show approaches the subject like “Six Feet Under” does. In the pilot, when the mother, Ruth Fisher (Francis Conroy), hears of the death of her husband over the kitchen telephone, she pauses and then utters an inhuman wail, throwing anything she can find before collapsing on the floor. Her son walks in, and she delivers the character- and show-establishing line, “Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined.” It’s ridiculous and yet horrifyingly natural.
Each episode frames itself by opening with a death before fading to white and beginning the plot of the episode. Sometimes the death is tragic, sometimes it is funny, and sometimes it is both. But it is always thematically relevant. And then the Fishers must deal with the funeral as they deal with themselves. A core part of the show is how people cope with the loss of a loved one; it’s less concerned with the dead and more with how the living react to the dead.
And the show is also about life, as it needs to be. Neither death nor life can be fully understood without understanding the other. The series effectively lays out its thesis near the end of the first season with a quick exchange:
“Why do people have to die?”
“To make life important.”
And “Six Feet Under” earns that somewhat corny line. Amongst the loss, heart-wrenching breakups, and general emotional trauma, the show’s characters come to terms with what gives their lives meaning. And the important thing to note is that the show never tells us what to think of life or how to cope with death. It merely presents a story and allows us to make of it what we will.
“Six Feet Under” would be nothing without its cast. Peter Krause plays the closest thing to a lead in the ensemble show, Nate Fisher, who constantly battles his many inner demons. Michael C. Hall, of “Dexter” fame, plays his brother, David, one of the strongest examples of a well-rounded gay character on television. Lauren Ambrose plays the teenager of the family, constantly lost amidst her lack of solid ground and her rotation of poor relationships. Frances Conroy’s portrayal of Ruth is particularly unique. She takes a neurotic, overprotective role and finds a way for us all to see our own mother within her. Lili Taylor and James Cromwell (“Babe,” “The Artist”) take up principle roles later on and are beautiful additions.
But perhaps the true star of “Six Feet Under” is Rachel Griffiths’s character, Brenda. She offers the outside perspective on the family as Nate’s mysterious love interest, and Griffiths deserves multiple Emmy’s, despite winning none. She is able to balance emotional distance and intimacy in a way that should not be possible and is able to tune it toward whoever is in a particular scene. Griffiths, like many of her costars and the show itself, is successful because she is a master of balance.
The cast plays extremely well off of each other. Some of the show’s best sequences arrive when several characters sit down together for an awkward family dinner. As each member of the cast grows in wildly different ways, their interactions become more meaningful and complex.
And then there’s everyone else in this world. Recurring guest stars Jeremy Sisto (“Clueless”), Patricia Clarkson, Rainn Wilson (“The Office”), and Kathy Bates (“Misery”) deliver an intense breadth of talent to the show, and those are just the ones you may have heard of. Richard Jenkins, above all others, deserves a shout-out. He occasionally returns as the ghost of Nathaniel Fisher. Jenkins is often a delight, but what makes him fantastic here is that he and the other ghosts in “Six Feet Under” are within the characters’ heads. He plays subtly different Nathaniels depending on which cast member he’s interacting with. His performance draws insight into what the other character wants, needs, or fears.
That’s not to say everyone in the cast is perfect. Keith (Michael St. Patrick) and Rico (Freddy Rodriguez) are regulars for the show’s full run. They’re meant to give outsider perspective on the family but don’t accomplish that task as effectively as Brenda does. Sadly, the show takes a slight turn for the worse when these characters receive more attention.
But “Six Feet Under” can correct its course. In season four, the show seems to really want to bring all of its characters to their lowest point. Season five compensates for this by reaching the show’s pinnacle, with the final few episodes proving brutally cathartic. The series finale is considered one of the best in television history, and for good reason: the final 10 minutes alone come as close to perfection as I can conceive.
“Six Feet Under” is one of the few influential television shows of the previous decades that realized it could be shot like a movie. Alan Ball clearly learned a few things while working on Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” set. The way the directors approach scenes (and especially how they play with space within the Fisher household) has left a mark on the shows that followed. The show’s soundtrack, by composer Richard Marvin, is just as critical, creating elegant disquiet with just a piano. And Alan Ball wields montages (set to everything from Buddhist chants to Sia’s “Breathe Me”) in a fashion yet to be rivaled.
“Six Feet Under” is not an easy show to watch. It’s brutal, and it jumps rope with your emotions. It will go into a horrifying dream sequence only to startle you by smashing back to reality. The show is haunting, it is traumatizing, and it is far from perfect. But it is a show that affects its audience far more than most. There is absolutely nothing like it, before or since. It is the beauty, irony, and horror of morbidity all rolled into one. And it should not stay buried.