TV Dungeon: Six Feet Under

(2001 – 2005, USA)

Creator: Alan Ball
Cast: Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Mathew St. Patrick, Freddy Rodriquez, Rachel Griffiths

5 Seasons (63 Episodes)


‘Every Day Above Ground is A Good One’

Alan Ball, the screenplay writer of American Beauty, once again displays his darkly comic view on suburban life (and death) in a series of marvelous splendor. This time around we follow the Fishers, a family that runs a funeral parlor in Los Angeles. After father Nathaniel Sr. (Richard Jenkins) dies in the pilot episode (comically getting crushed by a bus while lighting a smoke in his new hearse), his funeral business is left to his two sons Nate and David.

Nate (Peter Krause), the oldest son, is a good-looking, somewhat egocentric guy who never had much interest in the family business. David (Michael C. Hall) on the other hand has almost made it a sacred task to become a skilled mortician. He is frustrated that his father was always more fond of his brother Nate that he has now left half of his business. But mostly he resents himself for his homosexuality. This is communicated to the audience through conversations between David and his deceased father. Talking to the dead is a normal phenomenon in Six Feet Under. It is also used as a device to let the characters self reflect and express their feelings to the audience.

The youngest sibling is spontaneous daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose) who is introduced while she is taking crystal meth with her new boyfriend Gabe when hearing the news of her fathers death. Mother Ruth, portrayed with great intensity by Frances Conroy, deals with her husband’s loss by throwing herself in a series of relationships. She frequently expresses her strong need to share more with her family, but never really opens up herself. She is a character that can easily switch from sympathetic to sometimes downright abominable. A trait all the major characters in the series share at some point during the five season stretch.

All the characters and their relationships evolve greatly throughout the series. From Nate’s difficult relationship with the initially self-centered Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), a young woman who was exposed to psychiatry at a young age and is now living the self fulfilling prophecy that everything will go wrong, to David’s relationship with the handsome black policeman Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) who also went through a difficult childhood. Then, there is also the ambitious mortician Federico (Freddy Rodriquez), the very conventional and often bourgeois apprentice of Nathaniel Sr. who wants a partnership in the Fisher’s business. Both Ruth and Claire go through several relationships throughout the series that basically all fail at a certain point.

All the cast-members perform exceptionally well. Nate is portrayed with great confidence by Krause, who can switch from selfish to empathetic in no time. Nate’s AVM seizures are nailed with frightening accuracy by Krause. Hall, who hardly had any acting experience at that point in his career, is unforgettable as David, the character that arguably goes through the biggest development during the course of the series. The excellent Conroy and Ambrose as Ruth and Claire complete the dysfunctional Fisher family with their tantrums and occasional outbursts. The regular cast is often accompanied by guest-actors such as Lili Taylor, James Cromwell and Kathy Bates.

The theme death is off course elaborately explored throughout the series. Every episode starts with the death of a one time appearing character. These deaths are always perfectly in line with the feel of the series as they range between sad, dramatic, disturbing and funny. The mourning process is also fantastically observed and much attention has been given to the prosthetic effects used to create the often mutilated corpses that the Fisher’s have to embalm. The themes are all beautifully interwoven and composed with subtle visual symbolism, clever humor and poignant situations. The beautiful cinematography is evident from the brilliant opening credits on to the dreamy sequences later in the series.

There is a political agenda as well. David and Keith struggle with the unfair treatment of homosexuals and Claire’s left-liberal ideas clash with George Bush’s America. Six Feet Under is one of these shows where everything fits in perfectly. The greatest triumph is perhaps the shimmering final act (more specifically the final four episodes of season 5). It is beyond much doubt that Alan Ball and his team of writers, actors and directors have created the most memorable ending to a TV series to date. Not to say that the preceding stuff is not worthwhile. It is a powerhouse series on both comical and dramatic grounds and I urge you strongly to watch it. It might change your outlook on life, and it will certainly affect your view on death.

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