Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Time Of Death asks its viewers to confront an uncomfortable truth: the inevitability of death. Television is primarily an entertainment medium, so it’s brave, and maybe foolhardy, to make a six-hour series about death. But this is an intimate, extraordinary series that delves into a sensitive topic with courage.
Americans tend to deny the fact of death until they are unable to escape it, a custom in which Time Of Death bases its point of view. Dying happens behind closed doors or to other people, and many people have not actually witnessed a death. Time Of Death suggests that this denial is flawed, and that death and life are two sides of the same coin.
With unflagging perseverance, the series follows eight men and women through the process of dying: managing logistics, waiting with uncertainty, and grieving. Time Of Death opens with a woman in a fedora sobbing into a telephone, speaking to a 911 operator. When she finally speaks, she is remarkably composed: This is a non-emergency call, but her terminally ill mother has died. The operator asks her how she knows her mother is dead. She tries to describe it. “She’s, like, not breathing, and she’s blue, and she’s stiff, like, fucking dead.”
As the series unfolds, the timeline jumps back eight months, to tell the story of the woman who died and that of her oldest daughter, who moved home to take care of her. Maria Lencioni is 48 and has late-stage breast cancer; she speaks to the camera in a jaunty, matter-of-fact voice, describing how she has exhausted her medical options, to no avail. The cancer keeps spreading, and it becomes increasingly clear to her and her family that now there will be nothing to do but wait for it to claim her life. But there’s too much to do. Maria and daughter Nicole (a.k.a. “Little”) have to secure custody for Little’s high-school-age siblings, make a will, and settle funeral arrangements. And they have to deal with the reality of Maria’s death, as the single mother of three, who prides herself on her independence, is forced to rely more and more on the care of her eldest child. Maria’s story spans the whole six episodes of the series, charting her decline as the cancer spreads to her liver and then her brain. Interspersed with her story are those of seven other subjects, each with their own private struggle. The cameras follow each subject, and their families, as the dying finally succumb and the family mourns their death.
There is no suspense in Time Of Death, and no second chances, either. Each subject is terminally ill, and all of them will die. Almost all the subjects die of cancer. Most are caught in a drawn-out battle. Some choose to pursue therapies to try to prolong their lives, like Maria, who worries about what her children will do without her. Others, like Michael, a Navy veteran, and Lenore, a 75-year-old grief counselor, choose to forego any treatment save for palliative care. Some of the subjects have thought about what they want out of their death experience, while others were blindsided by their illness.
And even though it’s expected, it’s incredibly difficult to watch. This is a series that gets under the skin and makes no room for denial. Multiple subjects die onscreen, and the camera watches along with their families as they draw their final breath. It’s awful. It’s also riveting. This is a person who just days ago was cheerfully answering questions, talking to their parents, or speculating about what life holds after death. And then, through the greatest mystery of all, they transform from a person to a corpse, in a moment witnessed by the cameras.
Time Of Death is moving and heartfelt. In its effort to closely watch death, it passes no judgment on the many different ways to meet it. The series was produced by a company that has worked on Top Chef and Project Runway, but there’s nothing superficial or glitzy about it. If anything, the lens of universal interest that reality television provides makes Time Of Death much more personal than that other show about dying, Six Feet Under.
A series like this is hard to evaluate, because the presence of the real people in the documentary is inescapable, and a critique sounds like a judgment on their lives. The aunt of a 19-year-old dying of melanoma says, “They say it takes a village to raise a child. I don’t know what it takes to bury one.” That kind of raw grief permeates Time Of Death. The series implicitly turns the onus of action on the viewer, asking if they feel ready for their own death, or those of their loved ones. It’s harsh, but fair. And it’s an important question to ask.