A few months ago I started renting DVDs of Six Feet Under, the award-winning 2001 HBO series. In March of this year I started with the pilot, and last night I watched the final episode. Five seasons. 63 episodes. It took me three months. And oh god, now I’m done.
I can’t recommend this show highly enough. It was created by Alan Ball, who won an Academy Award for the screenplay for American Beauty. Six Feet Under is better. The amazing thing about television is that while a movie lasts for two hours, a series can last for years. You follow characters not through a single event, but through half a decade. With the very best of these shows — major props to HBO for The Sopranos, Deadwood and SFU, which are all to series television what The Godfather is to cinema — the characters attain such richness and complexity that they become almost as dimensional as the real meat-people you know. It’s amazing. Yes, I call these people by their nicknames and I shout at the TV when I see them do dumb shit. And I see my own life in the things they do.
For the uninitiated (how I envy you; you could go rent these discs now): Six Feet Under is about an LA family, the Fishers, who run a funeral home. Imagine a show about human interaction, really a sort of big-budget, realistic soap opera with actors who would carry home Oscars if only they were on the silver screen rather than the boob tube, created and guided by the writer of American Beauty and packed with inconsistent but observant and powerful writing.
At the beginning of every episode we see the latest arrival at Fisher & Sons Funeral Home, only we see them just before they die. We see the woman in the towel just before she slips on the wet tile floor; we see the family in the van just before they pull into traffic at the wrong moment. They’re rarely graphic, the opening minutes of the show, cutting away at key moments, but they’re always tense. The show is full of death, which means that it is also full of life, because the presence of one always strongly invokes the other. In what to me was one of the show’s most weirdly compelling moments, one of the Fisher sons dreams about his dead father, whom he sees sitting at a table playing poker. The son learns that the dead dad’s two poker companions are Death (a pale guy in a suit) — and Life (a loud, fat black woman). The father informs his son that the two poker-players are partners, and father and son back away from the table as Life and Death start having loud sex in a chair.
I was talking to Rowan yesterday about the show (she’s a junkie, too). We agreed that we had had a strong shift in our feelings about death after watching it. I honestly fear death less now, but not because of any slippery afterlife assurances. I fear it less now only because the show familiarizes you with death and what death looks and feels like, making it and its aftermath more familiar. And the more known is always less scary. If you fear death irrationally, I can hardly think of a better way to deal with your fears than to watch this show.
And it’s not solely about death. It’s also about the Fishers. And Rowan and I agree that perhaps the most realistic depiction of a love relationship we have ever seen in any media is that of David Fisher and his partner Keith, whose five years of ups and downs are immediately and painfully recognizable to anyone who has ever tried (and failed, and tried and failed) to love someone. And Nate, the oldest son and arguably the main character, I have mentioned here before because I am completely fascinated with him. Nate is the classic privileged person who never recognizes his own good fortune enough to savor it for long, who is never satisfied, who serially deserts what’s good in search of what’s next. Here is salon.com TV critic Heather Havrilesky expertly reading Nate’s beads:
Those who endlessly look inward, who gnaw relentlessly on their own worldview, who sneak around instead of being honest, who blame themselves for everything instead of trusting their instincts, who torture themselves instead of trying to experience life more fully or trying to give a little more of themselves to others, those modern negative nellies are destined to waste their time here…
Dead on (or so to speak).
She also says this about the show’s amazing final episodes, the last of which made me shed tears:
More than anything, the little mundane details of death and grief and funerals are at once horrible and sad and hilarious and breathtaking. TV shows so often stick with the tragic and forsake all of the other emotions that death brings with it. “Six Feet Under” can be counted on not only not to pull any punches, but to paint all of the subtle shades of emotion that go along with death. Watching these last episodes of the show sometimes feels like confronting the inevitability of death itself. It’s frightening and horrible, but it also makes you aware of where you are, how you feel, and what you have right here and now.