By Ben Patrick
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.
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.
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 surfacethe stuff of Ibsen, with a dash of
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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 wiserand we, like the
members of Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, keep coming back
Ben Patrick Johnson is a
writer and free-lance journalist in Los Angeles. His latest novel will
be published in October 2002.