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.

TV Dungeon: Twin Peaks

(1990 – 1991, USA)

Creators: Mark Frost, David Lynch
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Mädchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook, Richard Beymer, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, James Marshall

2 Seasons (30 Episodes)

‘A town where everyone knows everyone and nothing is what it seems’

David Lynch, in collaboration with writer/producer Mark Frost, captured the imagination of audiences worldwide with one of the most legendary television series to emerge in the nineties: Twin Peaks. What starts as a slightly offbeat whodunit, evolves into a complex and superbly intriguing mystery thriller.

‘Who murdered the high school beauty queen Laura Palmer?’, is the original premise. But with all sorts of supernatural stuff going on, new and bigger questions arise. The mystery of the Black Lodge is one of the most fascinating ideas of the show, and though not all questions are answered in the end, the unexpected climax is still fulfilling in a strange Lynchian sort of way.

Every whodunit needs a mystery solver. In Twin Peaks, this is special FBI agent Dale Cooper, played with verve by Lynch’s favourite boy Kyle MacLachlan. This strange, donut loving detective employs quite unorthodox methods to crack the case. He has dreams and visions about dwarves and Tibet. He also knows stuff he cannot know and he is always one step ahead of the rest.

Besides McLaughlin’s strong central role, there are many supporting characters that are as real as they are fantastical. The cast is perfect and features many (television)stars to be. All the strange inhabitants of mountain town Twin Peaks lead a complex double life. It is up to Cooper and local sheriff Harry Truman (Ontkean) to unravel their many mysteries.

The plot in Twin Peaks often takes a backseat to just let the many bizarre characters interact with each other. The show often feels like a platform for all the crazy ideas that Lynch, Frost and other collaborators who have worked on the show could come up with.

What makes the final result so great is the seamless integration of genres. With delicious black humor and countless fantasy elements, such as dwarves, giants, aliens and demons, the viewer will get hooked in no time. It is constantly absorbing, even during long stretches in which basically nothing significant happens. Twin Peaks is an endlessly fascinating show that took dramatic television into an entirely new realm.

Followed two years later by a prequel/sequel movie called; Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and a new season of the show in 2017.

TV Dungeon: I, Claudius

(1976, UK)

Director: Herbert Wise
Written by: Robert Graves (novels), Jack Pulman
Cast: Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips, Brian Blessed, John Hurt, George Baker, Margaret Tyzack, Ian Ogilvy

Mini Series (13 Parts)

‘let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out’

Marvellous BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ novels about the Julio-Claudian dynasty as seen through the eyes of the unlikely emperor Claudius. Not a slight task to transfer this fascinating period of history to the small screen. But they pull it off with some brilliant production design, acting and writing.

Every episode (except for 10) starts with an aged Claudius flashing back in time. From the beginning of the dynasty when Augustus was emperor until the rulership of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius himself and finally Nero. Brian Blessed stars as Augustus, a decisive emperor with a talent for leadership. His reign takes place in a time of conquest when Rome was still rich and powerful. The scheming wife of Augustus, Claudius’ grandmother Livia, poisons everybody that has a claim on the position of Caesar until the time is right for her son Tiberius to rule. One by one the members of the imperial family are killed off by Livia. All except for Claudius who has a disability, but is held for a much greater fool than he really is.

The cast of this great mini-series is top-notch. Derek Jacobi does a fantastic job as Claudius. A man whose weaker points don’t withhold him from becoming a great leader. Even though it is by a great coincidence that Claudius gets to wear the Caesar robe. Claudius’ rulership follows the horrible reigns of Tiberius (excellent performance from George Baker) and the insane emperor Caligula. The poisonous Livia is portrayed by Siân Phillips, whose evil schemes are a joy to behold. John Hurt gives a terrifying performance as the utter mad Caligula whose very presence is constantly threatening to Claudius and others. By pursuing his mad ideas and his obvious fondness for sadism and incest (he marries his sister Drusilla) he makes an even scarier villain than Livia. There are also early performances from Patrick Stewart and John Rhys-Davies amongst others.

There is quite a lot of violent and sexual content although not everything is explicitly shown. Still for a TV series from the seventies it is quite shocking. Even this day it possesses the power to make some jaws drop observing the extravagance of the old Romans. Being a TV production there was no budget for grand settings à la Spartacus and much of the series plays indoors. Still all the sets look beautiful and give the series something theatrical.

To this day this remains one of finest mini-series ever made. A definite must-see to those who enjoy historic drama, intriguing plots and superb acting.

TV Dungeon: Deadwood

(2004 – 2006, USA)

Creator: David Milch
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Brad Dourif, W. Earl Brown, John Hawkes, Paula Malcomson, Powers Boothe

3 Seasons (36 Episodes)

’Some Fortunes Are Better Left Unclaimed’

Sheriff Seth Bullock, pimp and saloon owner Al Swearengen, prostitute Trixie, and alcoholic Calamite Jane. Just a handful of the colorful characters that inhabit the raw and lawless frontier town of Deadwood. In the midst of Indian land, the late 18th century laws don’t apply. The power lies with Al Swearengen and his cronies. Through deceit, intimidation and murder he controls the town. Al Swearengen is Deadwood. But new opportunists arrive that all want their share of the wealth that the trade and the earth in Deadwood generates.

This is certainly one of the most ambitious productions ever by HBO. Not only ambitious in scale but in storytelling as well. These characters are not your average gunslingers. Creator David Milch wanted to show the west as it really was; dirty and corrupted. Filled with people scheming, swearing and double-crossing their way through life. There were no gunfights every ten minutes. Entrepreneurs operated sneakily to be able to fully profit from the rising economy. Although the show reminds of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, it is something we haven’t quite seen before.

Deadwood breaks with the typical western tradition. Vicious killers dominate the setting and famous western figures such as Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp are not the legendary characters they are generally made out to be. They are as human as the rest. Plagued by faults, addictions, self-pity and regrets. Despite their raw nature, the characters talk in very complex Shakespearian dialogues (filled with lots of cuss words) which makes it hard to understand their motivations at times. Figuring out the function of some characters in the main storylines is equally challenging. This, and the fact that there are quite a lot of uneventful episodes, could be off-putting for some viewers.

But those willing to invest their time will be rewarded with beautiful art-direction, cinematography and lighting. Not to mention a few shocking surprises and some monumental performances. The most intriguing (and humorous) character by far is Al Swaerengen, wonderfully portrayed by Ian McShane. He can cut a throat without blinking an eye, but is also able to show mercy and understanding to those in a weaker position. Because of his witty lines, amicable moments, and because of the constantly disgusting behavior of Swearengen’s rival Cy Tolliver, one can easily forget that this is an evil man. The frequent reminders of his ambiguity are among the most powerful moments of the show, as well as other character revelations that often occur in the form of extremely violent outbursts or other displays of ugliness.

Besides McShane, the other casting decisions have turned out very well. Timothy Olyphant is in his element as the frustrated lawman Seth Bullock, and Powers Boothe is utterly hideous as the gambling house owner Cy Tolliver. Then there is Molly Parker as the opium addicted Alma Garret, a widow due to Swearengen’s lust for gold. Her character as well as Calamite Jane’s show the independent spirit of the female, since most other women in the town are ruled by men like Swearengen and Tolliver.

The rise of a civilization is shown in many forms. Business opportunities are exploited and political alliances are formed. In the course of the series Deadwood sees the establishment of a hardware store, a school, a theatre and a bank. Also represented is healthcare (Doc Cochran) and the media (the Deadwood Pioneer). The primary human needs in Deadwood seem to be booze and prostitution though. Swearengen and Tolliver are more than willing to provide the people in that department. The church is only present in the form of one reverend who suffers from a brain tumor. Ironically he gets mercy-killed by Swearengen at the end of the first season.

Deadwood is based on real historic persons and events. Although I doubt that they exactly spoke like these characters, the series feels like an authentic vision of the west. Unfortunately it was cancelled after three seasons. 10 years later it was concluded in a TV-movie.

To those who have seen it already, re-watching the show is recommended. Where the first viewing requires concentration, the second time around more subtle things will come to the surface. You got that, you cocksucker!