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Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall in Six Feet Under
Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall
Photo courtesy of HBO

Prime-Time Emmy Nominations: "Six Feet Under" Digs Deep Into American Taboos


By Ben Patrick Johnson

LOS ANGELES, 30 August 2001 - On 18 July, after two seasons on the air, the American television series Six Feet Under (8 p.m. Sundays on HBO) was nominated for an astonishing 23 Prime-Time Emmy awards, including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Directing, Outstanding Cinematography, and dual nods for each of the Outstanding Lead Actor and Outstanding Lead Actress categories.

The magnitude of this endorsement from the television industry comes not as a surprise, but rather as a culmination of two years of critical and popular praise for the series. From the beginning, Six Feet Under sparked controversy and curiosity both for its subject matter and for its frank approach.

The brainchild of writer/director Alan Ball (American Beauty), Six Feet Under focuses on the neuroses and quiet victories of the Fisher family, owners of a small Los Angeles funeral home. In essence, it is a story about life passing as a story about death. Each episode begins with the passing-on of a future Fisher client and proceeds through that person's embalming and funeral. But along the way, we are privy to the unfolding drama of a family in the business of making presentable things usually shrouded in whispers and euphemism.

It is this illumination of things traditionally left in shadow that makes Six Feet Under so refreshing. Little is sacred. One result is the show's humor, which spans the subtle and the broad while always being dead-on.

The Fisher family is delightfully dysfunctional with results that are sometimes hilarious sometimes heart-rending. Ruth, the matriarch (Frances Conroy) is an iceberg of a woman whose long-denied passion burns just below the surface—the stuff of Ibsen, with a dash of Balzac's Bette.

The prodigal older son, Nate (Peter Krause), returns to the family business following his father's death, uncomfortably assuming a role he had shirked for a life of organic vegetables and hemp in Seattle. He falls for Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), a young woman with rather extensive emotional wounds from her past as a celebrated, overanalyzed childhood genius.

The family's younger brother David (Michael C. Hall) is gay, and has evolved, over the course of the show's two seasons, from closeted, uptight and wormy, to "out" and quite likeable in his determination and growing sense of self. His lover, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), a Los Angeles police officer, has emotional demons of his own, including a pronounced difficulty managing anger.

Claire, (Lauren Ambrose), the youngest member of the Fisher clan, is a wide-eyed beauty who has struggled mightily through high school angst and artistic depression, a relationship with drugs, and a sense of alienation from family and community.

More importantly, the forthrightness and facility with which the show addresses the American taboos surrounding death pave the way for its exploration of other themes the American sensibility excludes from polite conversation. Religion, inevitably, figures into many episodes--the Fishers' counsel of grieving family members leads to discussions of spirituality, often poignant in their bluntness, and during the second season, the brothers grapple with how to perform a Buddhist funeral.

Of course, this being America, the hot-topics list also includes sex and homosexuality. Rachael, in a defiant turn against her pending marriage to Nate, goes on a spree of increasingly risky promiscuous sexual encounters, angering us and baffling herself. David's blunder-filled path toward acceptance of his own homosexuality damns his lover Keith's attempts to eke out a stable home life for the two of them.

And to work in race and class, Frederico, the funeral home's able young Latino embalmer (Freddy Rodriguez), stuggles to make ends meet for his wife and young baby, always aware that, however integral he may be to the Fisher family business, he will be neither a financial partner in their affairs nor a member of the family.

These topics, though, receive a smarter-- wiser, less predictable, more poignant-- treatment in Six Feet Under than in most American television. Week after week, Ball takes the central subject of death and turns it on its head, letting all its associated pathos and neuroses and clap-trap clatter to the floor for us to examine. Sifting through it, we laugh, we weep, we grow wiser—and we, like the members of Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, keep coming back for more.

Ben Patrick Johnson is a writer and free-lance journalist in Los Angeles. His latest novel will be published in October 2002.

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