Six Feet Under premièred 10 years ago this Friday, and while expectations are a hard thing to quantify (especially after the fact), I’d argue that at the time, it was the most anticipated new series in HBO’s history.
The Larry Sanders Show had established HBO’s ability to create original programming that truly deserved the moniker “original,” and in the late 1990s, the network planted its flag as a creative leader in television drama with Oz and The Sopranos.
Still, the network has always been defined—and haunted—in part by its aspirations toward the prestige of cinema. It’s right there in the name, after all, and in the network’s snobbish slogan (now retired), insisting that “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” Cute, except, yes, it is TV, and in this light, Six Feet Under was a coup. It brought the fresh, exciting pedigree of screenwriter Alan Ball into the network fold, a year after Ball’s script for American Beauty won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, not to mention the film's win for Best Picture. Partly because Beauty director Sam Mendes was also an unestablished name in Hollywood, Ball had received more credit for the success of the film than screenwriters typically receive in the film industry. And now this silver-screen type was coming to HBO—to television!
The transition played out as well as both Ball and HBO could have hoped. In retrospect, American Beauty almost seems to be a rough draft for the emotional oppression and repression that Ball would explore in Six Feet Under. Ball builds his dramas by placing characters in an emotional prison, then watching what they do to claw their way out. The first step toward escape is acknowledging that they’re trapped in the first place, and that’s the focus of the pilot episode. While Ball gives his ensemble varying levels of awareness here, they’re all mostly in the dark.
The oppressive force in American Beauty is banal suburbia; in Six Feet Under it’s this unrelenting dirge of mortality. Heavier stuff. There’s no way to be subtle about death. It’s the ultimate binary: You’re alive, or you’re dead, and you only get to flip the switch once. So Ball doesn’t try to be subtle. He strings death up like a marionette and makes it dance. He laughs at it in one scene and stands in awe of it the next, like the Fishers presumably have done all these years.
That bold, experimental attitude gives the pilot episode a remarkable élan, even when viewed a decade later. Not every experiment works, as is the case throughout Six Feet Under’s run. The first scene, a fake commercial for hearses, is a misstep—as are the other hokey, clumsy joke ads in this episode—but it’s quickly forgotten as the farcical first act gets underway.
Speaking on the phone as she prepares a Christmas pot roast, Ruth Fisher admonishes her funeral-director husband Nathaniel to stop smoking, if not to prevent a slow painful death, then at least to avoid stinking up the brand-new hearse. Nathaniel takes one last drag, says goodbye to his wife, and leans down to light up another butt. Then the #2748 downtown bus ends him.
The central tension driving this episode is the contrast between Nathaniel’s experience of his death and his family’s experience. His high-speed demise is sudden only for him; for everyone else, there’s a bizarre lag time. As Nathaniel’s body is transferred to the morgue, David oversees a viewing in the downstairs “slumber room,” youngest child Claire smokes crystal meth for the first time, eldest son Nate screws a stranger in the airport janitor’s closet, and Ruth tends the roast.
But when I talk about that weird lag, I’m not talking about the time that it takes to disseminate the news of Nathaniel's death. We expect that. I mean the time after the news breaks but before the death feels final, as the Fishers nervously assess how much of a course correction each of them needs to accommodate this new reality. Their instinct is not to correct at all—maybe they can just coast. “The new hearse is totaled. Your father is dead,” a catatonic Ruth tells David. Her autopilot tells her that death is a business transaction, and a ruined hearse is a more pressing business concern than a corpse. “Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined.”
Ruth’s next step is a dutiful triage, running through a checklist to make sure that she’s not going to lose any more family today. She asks Claire, “Are you having sex? Are you doing drugs?” Not that she’s foolish enough to say so, but Claire is in fact tweaking on meth right then—she has to coast at the very moment she decided to goose the accelerator (literally so, in one scene). She can’t discern what parts of her panic are chemical and what parts are emotional. By the end of the episode, she resigns herself to the view that it doesn’t matter.
David, trained in the mores of the afterdeath, latches onto the security blanket of “propriety” and pulls the threads bare. He handles the rules and regulations, and where there aren’t any, he makes some up. He tells Fisher & Sons’ loyal employee Federico that there’s no swearing in the embalming room. He becomes furious when Nate scoops up dirt with his bare hand, rather than using the “earth dispenser.” David’s coping tactics are summed up in one wonderful physical move by actor Michael C. Hall. David is sitting slumped on the stairs when he hears his family at the door. By reflex, he stands, straightens his tie, and pulls his suit jacket tight. He’s ready for his close-up as the face of funerary best practices.
While David embraces his familiar role with deeper determination, Nate is struggling to follow a script he’s never read. He’s “the prodigal,” as Nathaniel puts it during Nate’s vision in the morgue. Lacking any better ideas, he feels his prodigal way along, testing his eldest-son chops on each member of the family, with mixed results. With Claire, the young sister he’s never really known, it’s a clumsy courtship. She asks him to help her deal with her inconvenient high, and he scolds her. He tells her to stop driving so damn fast, and she spurns him. At last, she falls into his arms at the grocery store and shares a bench with him at their father’s wake. He may be an unknown quantity, but any port in a storm.
Ruth takes to Nate more readily. We gather that Nathaniel could take a pretty flip attitude toward death. Ruth tells Claire that in the days when hearses did double-duty as ambulances, Nathaniel used to joke about it: “Drive around the block a couple more times, and we won’t need to stop at the hospital.” Nate’s self-assured, liberal attitude toward grief is appealingly familiar to her; Nate revitalizes a bit of Nathaniel before her eyes. (Can’t hurt that his name’s the same, either.) Maybe the transition doesn’t need to be as dramatic as she feared. Naturally, she asks Nate to stick around a few extra days.
This is not to say that Ruth is entirely swayed by her oldest son’s counterculture stylings. The most charged, brilliant scene of the episode takes place in a side room, where a distraught Ruth admits to her sons that she had an ongoing affair with a local hairdresser, who gave her the attentions that Nathaniel neglected. Ball sets up the relationship between Ruth and her sons here with extraordinary craft and humor. Frances Conroy’s performance is the highlight of an all-around great dialogue, as she deftly flits between pathos and hilarity over the course of a couple minutes.
The best sequence: Fed up by his mother’s revelation, David fumes, “Can you even begin to fathom the impropriety of this? Your husband is lying in a casket out there!” Nate comes to his mother’s defense: “David, she’s grief-stricken, OK? Fuck propriety.” And Ruth barks, “We don’t say that word!” Both of the sons are stunned. Their value systems are absolute; hers is too twisted to understand. She doesn’t match up perfectly with either man’s ethos.
The brothers are more dogmatic than either of them cares to admit. Just as David is defined by propriety, so is Nate, by virtue of his unflagging opposition to it. In their post-burial argument at the cemetery, the difference in their mindsets seems insurmountable. “There is a reason for everything that we do here,” David says. That may be true, but Nate is insisting that there be a meaning to everything they do. Reason and meaning are not quite the same thing, so they talk past each other. “You know nothing!” David screams, and for his conception of death, that’s true.
Both sons are fueled, too, by a great deal of self-interest. Clearly, David is trying way too hard to justify his lot in life as the responsible son, a fate he resents. But Nate’s harping on the Sicilian funeral was indulgent in its own right. This assistant manager of an organic-foods store decides to fashion himself as a sage, condescending to a family that can’t possibly be as worldly as his well-traveled ass—because there must be some greater significance to these years he has pissed away, right? If I were David, I’d want Nate to shove it, too.
In watching the pilot anew for this writeup, I was more intrigued by Claire than I was on the first viewing, mostly because of her frequent absence. She doesn’t show up in any of the flashbacks. She’s not there when Nate and David walk into the embalming room or when Nathaniel playfully sprays the young boys with a garden hose.
Claire comes off as an afterthought, and the age difference between her and her siblings suggests that she may have been just that. She’s not oblivious to this quasi-outsider status, and her adolescent bluster is an unconvincing front. You can tell that Claire wishes she could know the other members of her family better, the way they all seem to know each other. The key moment for Claire in this episode comes when she catches David sharing an intimate touch with his “racquetball partner,” Keith. Even amid her confusion and grief, this delights her. Now, in a way, she understands her brother better than any of the Fishers.
It’s astonishing how well-formed the characters are at this early stage. Nate’s broom-closet lover, Brenda, who's the daughter of two psychiatrists, already evinces the dangers of her endlessly analytical approach to other human beings. She assesses the motives of those around her, including herself, with intimidating coldness and accuracy. A two-line exchange tells us all we need to know about Brenda here. At the morgue, Ruth asks Brenda how she and Nate met. “In cooking class,” Brenda immediately replies. There is a kindness to this response, but the ease with which Brenda concocts the lie—the readiness with which she puts on that perfectly soothing smile—has an unsettling edge to it.
Then there’s Federico, the master corpse reconstructor whose artistry exceeds David’s pedestrian talents. For obvious reasons, David is jealous of Rico. Nate, though, is more bewildered by him. Rico is the person that Nate believes himself to be but isn’t. Blessed by a life lived outside the confines of the funeral home, Rico views the Fishers’ business merely as a job, one that he happens to enjoy. He has one kid and another on the way, neither of whom he planned for. In other words, the man has so much goddamn spirit, he creates new life by accident. Nate thought he could escape the oppression of death, but as his father tells him in the morgue. “Nobody escapes.” Rico shows Nate what escape might look like, because by all outward appearances, Rico was never trapped. Nate is, so we’ll watch him claw.
I was struck by two peculiar moments in the closing minutes of the show. The first comes when Rico arrives to bring Ruth home from the cemetery. Having wailed and thrown dirt on her husband’s coffin, she's swimming in a post-cathartic glow. She muses, “You have such delicate hands, Federico. Like a statue. Or an illustration in an antique book. Or one of those little ceramic hands they use to display gloves.” Rico takes it all in with a non-verbal "What the…?"
Then there's the strange sequence that closes the episode: Having seen an apparition of his father boarding an “OUT OF SERVICE” bus, Nate locks eyes with the strangers passing by on the sidewalk, following their faces in a deliberate manner. They hold a new, ineffable significance to him.
To me, the two scenes are linked, and they echo a dialogue from American Beauty:
Ricky: … I did see this homeless woman who froze to death once. Just laying there on the sidewalk. She looked really sad. I got that homeless woman on video.
Jane: Why would you film that?
Ricky: Because it was amazing.
Jane: What was amazing about it?
Ricky: When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you for a second. And if you’re careful, you can look right back.
Jane: And what do you see?
In Japanese culture, there’s this concept of beauty called wabi-sabi. (Bear with me here.) What follows is not a great explanation, but it’s what I can muster with my layman’s understanding: Wabi-sabi is predicated on the notion that all things are impermanent—they will all age and, in time, end. In wabi-sabi, this inherent imperfection is not a flaw but, rather, the most compelling source of beauty and a quality to accentuate, rather than obscure. The simple, temporary nature of a thing is an implicit reason to appreciate it.
My point: Ruth and Nate—and Ricky from American Beauty—are touched by a bit of the wabi-sabi. Nathaniel's death brings the impermanence of life into the foreground, and suddenly, they see the people around them as actual beings, rather than as background players in their own personal dramas. They sense a new kind of beauty. The effect is fleeting. As the camera pulls back, the passersby feel anonymous again, and Nate begins a retreat into his own head. Yet the transformation was there, and it was profound. Nate can’t escape death, but maybe he doesn’t need to.
- There are a couple of ways to follow along on our TV Club Classic adventure. One is to buy the DVDs. They’re available from Amazon and other fine retailers at reasonable (though not bargain-basement) prices. The entire series is also available on HBO Go, the network’s streaming app. You can use HBO Go on your computer or iPad if you have an HBO subscription AND your cable/satellite provider has an agreement with HBO. This leaves a lot of people out in the cold (e.g., Time Warner customers), but if you’re among the chosen ones, it's a pretty cool app.
- To give you an idea of my perspective, I watched Six Feet Under for the first time when it was originally airing. I saw the first season on DVD and the rest on TV. I haven’t watched the show at all since its finale—not because I didn’t love it but because I wanted to let Six Feet Under sit for a while and revisit it later in life with a fresh perspective. I’m excited to have this opportunity to do that with you all, and I’m looking forward to hearing the takes from longtime fans and first-time viewers alike.
- I'll be doing just the one episode each week. There's plenty to talk about in each one, and two at once would give the show short shrift. (Also, since the season is only 13 episodes long, we'll have no trouble covering it all by the end of the summer.)
- I think that most discussion will center on the episode at hand. But foreshadowing happens, and it’s a worthy topic of conversation. If you feel compelled to discuss details of future episodes, please be considerate of people watching the show for the first time and provide fair warning. I’ll do the same, of course.
- The show makes me laugh much more than I remembered. I remembered the sadness, the joy, the drama. But amid all that, I lost track of the fact that this is a very funny program. I was happy to be reminded of that here.
- Six Feet Under has aged better than American Beauty, which is a relief. I still like Beauty, but it does have some wince-inducing moments, most of them courtesy of the aforementioned Ricky.
- Case in point: “If there’s any justice in the universe, she’s shovelin’ shit in hell.”
- “We play racquetball together” is such a great euphemism for gay sex and perfectly suited to David.
- “Everybody forgives everybody, for everything.”
- “Oh, no, you’re doing me? You’re the worst one we’ve got.”