TV's Best of the Decade: No. 16 -- 'Six Feet Under'
Alan Ball reminds us that we're all gonna die, but we might as well live before we do
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A wise man -- OK, a fictional man -- once distilled the essence of life in seven words: "Get busy living, or get busy dying."
Now, as you'll recall, Andy Dufresne was committed that ethos.
How committed? Well, when he escaped from Shawshank, the last leg of his journey? Well, I'll let Red explain, "Andy crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of s***-smelling foulness I can't even imagine, or maybe I just don't want to. Five hundred yards... That's the length of five football fields, just shy of half a mile."
You'll note that Andy Dufresne made a mistake in his choice of conjunction. Get busy living, *or* get busy dying? How silly and reductive, as if the process of living is anything other than the glorified process of dying.
Over 63 episodes, HBO's "Six Feed Under" laid out this ethos: Get busy living *and* get busy dying. Or maybe "Get busy living, because the dying part is happening at the same pace whether you're getting busy with it or not."
And over the course of those 63 episodes, creator Alan Ball put his characters through more s***-smelling foulness than Andy Dufresne ever could have imagined. On "Six Feet Under," the journey was everything, because for all of us, the destination is the same.
"Six Feet Under," equal parts moving, bizarrely hilarious and maddening, stands at No. 16 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade...
[More after the break...]
There are shows on this list that I've rewatched several times already, that I even loved in repeats, back when television networks used to air repeats of shows other than "The Simpsons." Then there are shows like "Six Feet Under." Strangely, I've never been loitering in my living room with free time and thought, "You know, this is a great evening to revisit David Fisher's abduction, crack-smoking and beating" or "Huh, remember all the good times with Nate and Lisa?" That doesn't change the level of greatness that she show often achieved, but it also might explain why some people might place "Six Feet Under" much higher on a Best of the Decade list and also while some people might place it much lower. Granted immense freedom after winning an Oscar for "American Beauty," Ball took that capital and created a show that thrived on pure and sometimes unmitigated discomfort.
In the pilot (probably the show's finest episode), Peter Krause's Nate Fisher, who spent the better part of his life and the better part of five seasons searching for purpose, recounted a story of seeing a funeral near Sicily and being astounded by the unguarded emotion on display, the wailing and the literal rending of garments. That experience was meant in contrast to the American Way of Death, which is all about sterility, restraint and maintaining the illusion that death and also grieving can be a clean and orderly process.
In America, we have two real modes when it comes to death. We either avoid it entirely or we fetishize it. In the first mode, we shy from casualty figures from our various international conflicts, we protest when networks attempt to read the names of the war dead and we take genuine umbrage when somebody attempts to show bodies on TV, even in caskets. In the other mode, millions of us watch shows like "Criminal Minds," which treat murders like degenerate rock stars, or even things like "Bones," a show I often adore, in which corpses are icky piles of viscera, played for gross-out laughs. We follow TMZ for up-to-the-second reports on celebrity casualties, seeking out autopsy photos like they're the same as a voyeuristic up-skirt or nipple-slip.
[In the aftermath of a main character's suicide on "House" last season, I wrote a lengthy column on this subject. I think it's one of the better things I wrote this year...]
On "Six Feet Under," the dead and dying had names. They had birthdays. We saw them pass away in manners that were sometimes peaceful, sometimes grotesque and and often, in weaker episodes, glibly ironic. We saw the people who mourned for them and we saw the process, in the basement of Fisher & Sons, in which they were made presentable. In a stylistic quirk which, thankfully, didn't continue for the duration of the series, we saw Gap-style advertisements for funeral industry products, wound-filling putty and dirt-scattering shakers, things meant to take the messiness out of mortality.
And then we saw the Fishers themselves, uptight mom Ruth (Frances Conroy), uptight, closeted David (Michael C. Hall), evasive and directionless Nate (Krause) and rebellious Claire (Lauren Abrose), who was introduced to us in the pilot doing crystal meth and hanging out with Eric Balfour, two of the worst fates imaginable. Fisher & Sons was presented as the caring side of the funeral industry, as opposed to the larger corporate interests, but they still played their role in perpetuating the obscured and sheltered death. That's before the family patriarch Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) was hit by a bus.
Viewers got to see how even people who make a living off of death don't necessarily know how to handle it.
"There's been an accident. The new Hearse is totaled," Ruth told David. "Your father is dead."
At Nathaniel's funeral, the priest reads this line from the "Book of Common Prayer," "In the midst of life we are in death." We didn't see what life was like for the Fishers before the start of the show, but they spent the next five seasons learning how true those words are, as those around them and even several main characters died, cheated death or flirted with death. And then, in one of the great finales -- this is kinda a spoiler, but not really -- everybody died. There wasn't some sort of horrible accident that killed them all, but Ball wanted to remind us that even though the characters were going to continue on after the closing credits, they were also going to eventually meet an end. It was a conclusion every bit as appropriate as David Chase's open-ended wrap-up to "The Sopranos."
The path that "Six Feet Under" took was very circuitous. Early episodes mined from a vein of very dark and absurdist humor, but as the show progressed, humor became more and more secondary. You had Nate with his AVM, his surgery, his infidelities, his poorly considered marriage and his missing wife. You had David sliding down a crevasse of clinical depression, personal uncertainty and other demons. You had Claire's string of impossibly wrong boyfriends, an abortion and all manner of misfortune. Ruth couldn't seem to find a new man who wasn't crazy or in danger of being beaten to a pulp by the Russian mob. And that was just the core family. Terrible things kept seeming to happen to Fedrico (Freddy Rodriguez) and Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) and everybody else in proximity. Sometimes the show made it clear that the Job-ian struggles of the family were self-inflicted, but it was just as often random or fate.
The show, at the very end at least, finally became as much about living and escaping the fear of death, something that it probably could have been a little sooner, because the prolonged misery almost certainly lost some viewers.
You can't go through that much tsuris without providing enough acting showcases for a cast of dozens. As things got worse and worse all of the character became more and more open about their emotions and the performances by the cast became bigger and bigger. Krause may have been the early-season standout, but Hall was the dominant figure in the later seasons and it still astounds me that he wasn't able to win an Emmy for his work in the pit of David's downward spiral. Conroy's performance often seemed mannered, but it was clear early on that she was crafting a portrait of a very specific kind of woman and her commitment to that character never failed. Ambrose grew and matured as a performer and became better with every season.
And as the show progressed, the availability of meaty, emotional work brought out actors like Jeremy Sisto (very briefly in the pilot), James Cromwell, Joanna Cassidy, Kathy Bates, Ben Foster, a pre-"Office" Rainn Wilson, Justin Theroux and Patricia Clarkson, who won the show's only two acting Emmys.
There's the unfortunate reality that in discussing the Aughts, nearly everything can be brought back around to 9/11/01. Sometimes it's relevant and sometimes it isn't.
"Six Feet Under" premiered in June of 2001, months before collective grieving became a part of our national psyche, before we had to hear about rescue workers attempting to identify bodies from shreds of DNA evidence, before the start of the wards that made showing the bodies of dead American soldiers on television a part of the conversation for the first time since Vietnam. In an earlier entry in this series, I wrote about how for "24," 9/11 made the unimaginable seem plausible. With "Six Feet Under," the show was all about staring into the eyes of the unavoidable and what began as a Fisher Family obsession became universal. [Yes, 9/11 was during the break between the show's first and second seasons, but these are the thoughts that came to my mind rewatching the pilot, many years later. All I could think was that the show was shot in a very different time and that the world changed around it, making everything seem more relevant. And yes, "death" is always relevant, but still...]
Anyway, since my lack of desire to sit and chill and rewatch the series isn't the same as a lack of deep appreciation, that's why "Six Feet Under" stands at No. 16 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade.
Up tomorrow? A celebration of diversity, true love and a really good chili recipe.