The human experience may be the most familiar subject in any form of media or literature. An examination of who we are. What we are doing. When we die. Where we belong in the Universe. Why we even decide to try. And, most importantly, how we love each other. These themes would presumably be the easiest to write since they are those which we live every day. But, it seems that the most tangible human experiences are actually the hardest to put into words precisely. It’s as if graphing human life in works of fiction is an insult to each and every one of us if not correctly done. So, when such a work of fiction not only correctly paints and imagines human beings in their natural form, but does it to a degree of beauty and simplicity that is perfect, it is our duty to hail it as a masterpiece. There may only be one television show to ever attain such an achievement: HBO’s family drama “Six Feet Under.” Unfortunately, most people have not seen it. A lot of people may not have ever heard of it. But, “Six Feet Under” undoubtedly must be seen by every single person who may have ever considered themselves to be human.
At its core, “Six Feet Under” avoids flash and awe. It’s a show about an American family, the Fishers. Together, they own a funeral home in Los Angeles, but at the show’s start, only the patriarch of the family, Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins), and his closeted second son David (Michael C. Hall, of “Dexter” fame) actually run the home. The daughter and baby of the family, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), is a regular high school punk who hates her family. Ruth (Frances Conroy), a caricature of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant domesticity, only wants her family to be together (even if they’re unhappy). And Nate (Peter Krause of “Parenthood”), the protagonist and eldest child, lives as far away as he can from the family.
The pilot begins just as every episode does: someone dies. At the start of every episode, there’s a brief backstory of someone’s death, and then they die. In most cases, the Fishers actually prepare the person’s funeral, and sometimes the deceased has some sort of connection to the family, like in the pilot. Nathaniel, the family’s father, dies. With such a dramatic ignition, the entire show begins.
Most pieces of film run on a mix of direction, visuals, sound, and screenwriting. Due to smaller budgets and less time to work on each episode, television is forced to be a screenwriter’s playground. What “Six Feet Under” does so incredibly is speak on subjects that plague our lives, instead of being a medium to escape the troubles of reality. Every issue imaginable is present in “Six Feet Under,” and it would truly take ages to speak with deserved credit on every single one. For now, the most striking and difficult will be discussed.
The most obvious theme that the show discusses is death. What is most frequently discussed is what happens to us after we die (physically, that is). Every single episode involves a grieving family, a dead body, and the Fishers’ abilities to deal with both. It’s difficult to watch grief and pain, but the skill required to show such pain and weakness is one of the greatest and most surprising aspects of the show. The writers make it look way too easy to completely create and destroy a life in a matter of minutes. This brutality is what faces the Fishers every day and forces them to contemplate their own lives. Take the case of Nate, who had such an intense fear of death that he tried to get as far away from his family as he could. The show presents death with a nonchalance that forces us to contemplate our mortality with reluctance, but ultimately satisfaction. Death is its own character in the show, and just like the rest of the characters, shifts and shapes to the story wonderfully.
Another significant and taboo issue that the show addresses head-on is mental illness. Nate very quickly begins a long-term relationship with a woman named Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). Brenda’s brother Billy (Jeremy Sisto) has the most intense mental health issues on the show, and the theme is frequently addressed with severity, but simultaneously shows the distances that family and friends will go to aid loved ones, no matter how much their illnesses may offend and hurt. Just like most themes on the show, mental illness is never romanticized, as is the norm in today’s media. For those who have dealt with mental illness themselves or who have loved ones with mental illness, “Six Feet Under” will not disappoint in its dedication to truth.
Some of the show’s most interesting themes are purpose and self-worth. This gives plenty of room for the show to indulge in pretentious conversations on “life’s meaning.” Instead, the individual characters merely react to the constant death they are surrounded by, and their actions and aspirations are their own commentary on purpose and meaning. One of the show’s characters frequently contemplates life and how they should have spent it. But instead of being blatant with how dissatisfied they are with their life, they live in a state of denial, believing they are happy when their actions clearly show that they are not. This is one of the many subtleties that makes the show so wonderful and so brilliantly simple.
There is one theme throughout all mediums, whether it be literature, film, or television, that is the most difficult to capture: love. The biggest problem that most writers run into while writing love is believing that love is perfect. That love is easy. Love is not easy. Love requires sacrifice and putting others before yourself. True love is brutal. “Six Feet Under” knows how we love. It knows that sometimes you can love someone so much that it tears you apart. The show knows that true love is that which is found out of struggle and hardship. It knows that those who have struggled are those who know how to love well. The most interesting relationship on the show is between David and his boyfriend Keith (Matthew St. Patrick). Their relationship is a clear example of finding love through hardship. Not only do they deal with being a gay couple in the early 2000s, they also are tested merely by circumstance. They fight for each other and they love no matter what obstacles stand in their way. They hurt each other but only because they are sometimes afraid of how much they love each other. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and most importantly, it’s real.
This article is the first installment of a multi-part “Six Feet Under” review, and is also a part of a developing weekly column called “Revival Reviews.” The column is primarily focused on shows that have aired over the past 10 years and intends to explore shows that may have been too mature at the time of their premiere for current Wes students.