“Six Feet Under” does not trip or falter on its abundance of themes. They impact the viewer with great force but sneak up and scare rather than travel slowly from out of frame. The show embarks upon reaches and bounds which can sometimes be shocking in their flawless performance. But it would not matter how ambitious the show was, with its fearless embrace of some of the most horrifying events of life and death, if it did not have such talented screenwriters. The show subtly and effortlessly ties together an incredible number of plotlines And the seamless transitions from theme to dialogue would be impossible without an outstanding cast of actors to perform them, making “Six Feet Under” one of the foremost examples of a top notch writers’ table and ensemble cast. Flawed. Real. Extraordinary.
Alan Ball has a gift of writing incredible dialogue that you barely notice is there. His characters speak as normal people because Ball has a sense of how people talk. Their thoughts are pretentious but their voices are slacked and broken. Those who follow exactly what their heart desires, as we all wish we could do, sometimes fail horribly. Ball knows how to deal with reality. His words are our words, idealistic and stupid. He makes us feel stupid because he writes exactly what we’re thinking and walks us through a timeline of how we will always fail to be exactly as we wish we were.
The characters in “Six Feet Under” are all stupid at some point or another, no matter how practical they can be. David (Michael C. Hall) is the perfect child of the family. He joins the family business although he wanted to be a lawyer. He’s religious and lives at home and never has any sense of adventure. Until his father dies, that is. David quickly becomes angry and reveals to his family that he is gay and not at all perfect. Michael C. Hall, an incredibly talented actor, so perfectly reflects the child we all wish we could be to our parents. The rebel trapped inside a lamp of expectations, David may be the tamest person on this show (well, at first), which may have been one of the most difficult performances. David’s character is one of the greatest testaments of how incredibly the show can reflect life, and no actor other than Michael C. Hall could have presented such restrained anxieties.
Similar to David in her desires to be controlled and orderly, Ruth (Frances Conroy) wants to be the ideal of Protestant perfection. She is the powerful matriarch who willingly subjects herself to the patriarchy of society. No matter how strong she is, she seems to always want to be controlled by a man, no matter if it’s her husband or her number of lovers. Ruth carries a strong sense of Christian duty throughout her adult life, supported by a traumatic childhood of dutiful obedience to her grandmother. Frances Conroy so wonderfully plays this strict and unkind matriarch in a way that makes us not hate her but instead desire for her to finally be free, which is one of the many double-sided archetypes that the show delivers.
To the Wesleyan readership, the most relatable of the bunch would be Claire (Lauren Ambrose). The perfect foil to her mother, Claire wants nothing but to be a rebel. The youngest lead character of the show, Claire, has the chance to not make the same mistakes as the other members of her family. But, as if she has to fulfill some sort of tradition, she is on a suicide mission, making choice after choice to hurt herself and put herself in situations that spell nothing but trouble. But, as happens to almost every character on the show, Claire goes through incredible shifts and changes as the show progresses, changes that are so subtle in the way that it’s still the same Claire. The Claire that has gone through so many trials and errors is the same Claire that we knew she was from the very beginning, but was just afraid to be who she always knew she was. Lauren Ambrose, who was only 23 when the show began, holds strong against the rest of the incredible cast, and encapsulates exactly what it means to be youth in revolt (who may not even be sure why they are in revolt).
Nate (Peter Krause) wishes to be free and exotic and happy. But he also wants to have a happy relationship with his girlfriend, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). He wants to be real and alive, but he lives in the childhood home that he’s been trying to get away from his entire life. Nate is the perfect manifestation of the person we all wish we would like to be, but by failing for us, Nate also shows how impossible this desire often is. Michael Krause’s incredible acting reflects the harsh realities of our world; sometimes, you just can’t be everything you want to be. Nate never learns to sacrifice or deal with his inner demons and at many points pays for it with his sanity. Nate is the American tragedy, born from the American dream. And Nate’s sense of dissatisfaction with life would not be so interesting to watch without Brenda. Nate would be nothing but an annoying character if we did not root for him so much because of his relationship with Brenda. They are the picturesque perfect couple, and Rachel Griffiths is outstanding in her performance of Brenda. Brenda goes through many of the same identity issues as Nate does, but she actually tries her hardest to change herself to fit Nate’s needs and the needs of their relationship. One of the greatest tragedies of the show, however, is Nate’s inability to change for her.
“Six Feet Under” is a lot of things. Emotionally fulfilling. Tragically heartbreaking. Jaw-droppingly beautiful. And the writing is just so between-the-lines that you could miss it all in a flash just by how distracted you are by how much you love the characters and their stories. And the greatest testament to this show’s ease of storytelling may be the complexity of its story arcs. All of these characters and their places in life shift, and sometimes you’ll find yourself unsure if you are even watching the same show you were two seasons before. The journey through both life and death that these characters take may be one of the most emotionally involving ones. But, because of the unbeatable story and all-star performances, it’s a ride that you will never want to exit. “Six Feet Under” may be the greatest story of human relationships ever created. When it ends, you’ll feel that you yourself have lost your own loved ones just because of how deep they will dig themselves into your mind and heart. Watch “Six Feet Under” right now. You will not regret it. The whole series is available on HBO.
This article is the second part of the “Six Feet Under” review, and is also 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.