Disclaimer: It should be noted that as part for the course regarding the rules of this feature (to watch at least 1 half season of a tv show, or a full feature film) I will be speaking specifically about the first season. While I had only initially intended on watching the first 6 or so episodes, I did manage to chew through the whole 13-episode arc with relative ease. Potential spoilers ensue, but I’ll keep them light.
Until last week I had never seen a single episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under. For one reason or another, the nine-time Emmy award-winning show has evaded me for reasons I can’t quite comprehend, and it’s not like it would have been difficult to get my hands on either. Perhaps there are still some adolescent genes kicking around in my system which react badly to people constantly telling me to do something — “Oh, you still haven’t seen Six Feet Under? You’ve got to see that. You must watch it. It’s totally your kind of thing. You’ll love it!” SCREW YOU, YOU DON’T KNOW ME!
Alas, they were right. I should have seen Six Feet Under before now. It is totally my kind of thing. And I love it.
For those who have yet to see the show (and who am I to judge, really?) it depicts the life and times of the Fisher family who run a funeral home in Los Angeles, CA. While HBO’s high-profile dramatic output has been characterised by narratively complex, extended arcs which verge closer to the realms of cinema (Game of Thrones, The Sopranos), Six Feet Under celebrates a formula which is very traditional, formulaic and familiar – akin to the procedural drama in network television. Each episode focuses on a particular ‘Death of the Week’ in a manner which would not seem out of place on ABC’s Castle or FOX’s House. While this initially caught me off-guard, I found it turned out to be one of the most endearing elements of the show.
I’m a big fan of procedural dramas, but they do come with a set of caveats. The genre has to sustain narratives across 24-episode arcs in order to satisfy the demands of advertisement and the network television structure. This often leads to a high volume of inconsequential ‘filler’ episodes, and while these can be handled well by some shows they often hold little or no narrative weight in terms of the long-term story told. For the majority of these seasons the viewer is held in a narrative stasis after an initial set up, occasionally teased by small revelations or tidbits to tide them over until a inevitable mid-season or finale event which typically propels the narrative and character development forward significantly. It can be a very cathartic process for fans invested in the show, but taking an objective step back can reveal a highly predictable, trite format which is begging for some reinvention.
Six Feet Under manages to (thus far, at least) avoid this predictability. With HBO’s signature half-season length, the show is immediately far more dense than its network brethren and the narrative flow has a steady pace to it which doesn’t sink into the realm of filler. For instance, during the first episode we are introduced to David Fisher (Michael C. Hall), a dutiful middle child who has succeeded his father as a funeral director. David is revealed later in the episode to be a closeted homosexual, actively preventing the Fisher family from meeting his partner Keith Charles (Mathew St. Patrick) who seems more comfortable with his sexuality. While it would have been almost expected of the procedural format not to address any revelations on the subject until a mid-season or finale setting, Six Feet Under approaches this in a far more organic manner and the viewer is able to witness David’s journey towards self-acceptance between his family, friends and his faith on an episode-by-episode basis. This thread does not dominate the narrative either, with the other three members of the Fisher family – Ruth (Frances Conroy), Claire (Lauren Ambrose) and Nate (Peter Krause) – developing throughout the show in an equally significant manner. It is a dense, diverse and complex show in disguise, made immediately accessible to consume thanks to the episodic, enclosed, procedural format.
One of the other highlights of the show is its dark sense of humour. Each episode opens cold with a Death of the Week which progressively becomes a series of cautionary Darwin Awards-like tales over the course of the season, raising a few laughs by highlighting the stupidity, tragedy and absurdity of death. Furthermore, the dialogue and exchanges between the funeral workers at Fisher & Sons evoke a sense of gallows humour and camaraderie as they attempt to restore and repair bodies for burial. After the first few episodes, it became pretty much commonplace for living, breathing characters to be conversing with the dead body of the week. The dead would manifest themselves as walking, talking corpses – gaunt, pale and often still showing wounds as though stripped straight out of a George Romero film. While initially the presence of the zombie can seem humorous it quickly becomes apparent that they are projections created purely by the living characters as opposed to any Twin Peaks-esq surrealistic addition to the narrative, and thus adds a wealth of subtext to the conversations between the living and the dead. Congruent to bodies-of-the-week waking up and conversing on the embalming table, recurring characters such as Nathaniel Fisher Snr. (who is the show’s first death and father to David, Claire and Nate) appear in dreams and hallucinations to family members throughout the season.
In many ways, the show reminds me of HBO’s prison drama Oz in its use of surrealistic, quirky and humorous elements juxtaposed with hard-hitting drama – although it never ventures as far violence or brutality of that series. Six Feet Under is wonderfully written and effortlessly navigates between these off-kilter sensibilities and real emotional, heartbreaking sequences. On top of that, the acting is of the phenomenal quality that the HBO Original Programming has become synonymous in recent years, with commendable performances across the board.
You still haven’t seen Six Feet Under? You’ve got to see it. You must watch it. It’s totally your kind of thing. You’ll love it!