Six Feet Under, season one
In The Catch-Up, a longtime fan and a newcomer discuss a TV show, movie, book, music, or other pop-culture item. In this installment, Steve Heisler and John Teti discuss the first season of Six Feet Under, Alan Ball’s funeral-home family drama.
Steve: When I was growing up, HBO series were things my parents watched, because they were intense and dramatic and not for me. This wasn’t exactly about how old I was, because when Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under debuted in 2001, I was already in college and had seen my fair share of really messed-up art. This included Ball’s American Beauty in the theaters as one of the first R-rated movies I didn’t have to sneak into. It’s just that I was at an age where if my parents liked something, I questioned its validity because I was super-hip and special. When I came home for breaks, my parents would watch Six Feet Under, and I would watch reruns of The Simpsons, and our tastes would remain permanently unaligned. I had as much interest in hearing what my mom thought about Nate Fisher as she had in me re-enacting the Sideshow Bob-steps-on-lots-of-rakes scene from the “Cape Feare” episode.
I avoided Six Feet Under for much longer than I probably should have, simply because I associated it with mom-and-dad television—to say nothing of my actual parents, whom I now realize have generally great taste. Plus, it wasn’t until my recent obsession with soul-crushing, menacing dramas like Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones that a show like Six Feet Under—a show described for years to me as “about death”—seemed not only palatable, but downright appealing to my newfound TV masochism. Knowing the show was a favorite of fellow A.V. Club-er John Teti, a guy whose opinion I respect greatly, was icing on the cake. Or, mortuary paste on the corpse, as it were.
Digging into the pilot for the first time, I found it was bereft of my fear with most HBO dramas: a failure-to-launch vibe that haunts the first half-dozen episodes, with no real tangible hook to keep me coming back until, much later, the characters started getting under my skin. At the risk of sounding controversial, I gave up on Boardwalk Empire and Treme almost immediately, whereas Game Of Thrones ended its first episode with a shocking two-story fall, wounding a major character. In Six Feet Under, the central characters are the Fishers, who run a funeral home in the greater Los Angeles area. Nathaniel is the patriarch of the family, and the Fisher in Fisher & Sons Funeral Home. He’s spent his entire life building a business that traffics in death. And within minutes of the pilot, he dies in a car crash.
With the first few minutes, we also get something entirely different: A fake commercial for a “Crown Royal Funeral Coach,” presented as if it were a high-class Lexus ad with Gap-commercial-level enthusiasm. This motif continues throughout the episode. The Fishers mourn the loss of their father while worrying about the future of the business, and the plot is occasionally interrupted by another faux-product.
In his TV Club Classic review of the pilot, John calls these commercials “missteps,” but I think their presence in this episode (though no others) speaks to one of the richest themes of Six Feet Under’s first season. In the Fishers’ world, a family that literally lives above the funeral parlor they own, death is nothing and everything at the same time. The lightness of the topic is exemplified when master restoration artist Federico pats himself on the back for sticking cans of cat food under a porn star’s mammoth breasts to hold them in place—one of many tricks he employs and discusses in a blasé manner. But it’s also a topic to be treated very seriously, like when Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy), now a widow, wails uncontrollably at Nathaniel’s burial, flinging dirt onto the casket.
For other characters, that moment of catharsis happens much later in the season. (Or, at least from what I’ve seen, not at all.) David (Michael C. Hall) buries himself in work at the funeral home, a place he has taken on as his personal responsibility. Nate (Peter Krause), the philandering Fisher outcast who severed ties with his family when he was young, returns home to discover he’s been made co-owner of the funeral home alongside David—the ultimate “fuck you” from his father. Gone are the days when he worked at a food co-op in Seattle and fucked strangers in airport utility closets. Now he’s attempting to get his funeral director’s license and has even engaged that aforementioned stranger, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), in a long-term relationship. David mourns by trying to carry his father’s torch; Nate’s mourning process involves realizing he’s more like his father than David can ever hope to be. Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose), the much-younger high-school badass, doesn’t even know how to mourn, as her relationship with her father was seemingly nonexistent. As she points out in a later episode, there are no home movies of her, only the boys.
Death is a constant on Six Feet Under, to the point where the first season desensitized me to the subject entirely. I liked those fake commercials because they quickly turned the loaded subject into whimsy. I’m impressed with the way Alan Ball took a topic so taboo most people refuse to talk about it openly, and treated it with the same reverence and complexity that Friday Night Lights uses on football. The big difference, though, is that I cared whether the Dillon Panthers/East Dillon Lions won a game. After 13 episodes, I found it hard to root for the characters on Six Feet Under to really live, which I suppose is the equivalent. They’re so surrounded by death all day, every day, that they become grim in everything they do, dying a little inside every time Nate and Brenda have a psychologically draining fight, or Ruth refuses to make up her mind about courting Hiram, the man with whom she had an affair before Nathaniel’s passing. It’s not until a client tells the Fishers, “I’ve been to a lot of funeral homes, but this is the most depressing one,” that I realize the Fishers are a dark, brooding family, and that Six Feet Under would prefer it that way.
John, I’m curious what your impressions were the first time you watched this season. What kept you coming back? How did the show change the way you thought about death?
John: The show didn’t change the way I conceptualized death as much as it often changed the way that I thought about life in relation to death. I think those people who told you the show is “about death” were obviously right in a certain way, and of course they said so in casual conversation. But “a show about death” is really a poor encapsulation of Six Feet Under. There’s only so much you can say about death, right? It’s the end. It’s nothing. But there’s a great deal to be said about the infinite complexities of human life.
In the first-season finale, a distraught mourner asks Nate Fisher, “Why do people have to die?” And he replies, “To make life important.” Out of context, it’s a fairly pat statement, but over the course of the first 13 episodes, Six Feet Under earns the right to make it. In fact, it’s the most important line of the season. Death is not truly the subject of this show; it’s a means to an end—a lens through which to talk about life. Six Feet Under uses death primarily in two related ways. First, it treats death as an endpoint, a moment in which it’s possible (and indeed, natural) to assess the whole of a person’s life. The final chapter has been written, and now we read the book. Second, death serves as a backdrop—the dark absence against which the lights of a person’s being are more easily discernible. Six Feet Under’s premise is that watching how people act when someone dies is a great way to understand what that person was like in life.
The death of Nathaniel Sr. is the primary expression of this thesis—it’s the absence that drives the show for its first season and beyond. If we were watching the Fishers before Nathaniel died, we would have seen one son dutifully preparing to take over the family business, another son wandering from one organic-food paycheck to the next, an uptight wife, and a mildly rebellious young daughter. In other words, it would be just as boring as you’d expect a show about a funeral parlor to be. (And indeed, that’s how the show was first described to me. It sounded incredibly dull, and I don’t remember why I decided to give it a try.)
But when the father is removed—when Nathaniel’s last chapter is written—the time for reckoning arrives. The Fishers’ lives become more vivid in his absence. So to answer your question at long last, Steve, what kept me coming back—counterintuitively enough—is the vibrancy of the show. The Fishers are indeed a dark and brooding bunch, and Six Feet Under frequently makes hay of it, as you note. But the writers gleefully surround the family with bright, ebullient life. (It’s no accident that the sun is almost always shining in the show’s portrayal of southern California.) It contrasts the hilarious, wanton desire of the Russian flower-shop owner against Ruth’s seemingly inexorable “Why, I never!” façade. And you have Nate, who pretends to be a free spirit, paired up with Brenda, who outright forces herself to be one—not to mention Brenda’s loopy parents. I find it fascinating to watch how the Fishers react against these foils.
My impressions the first time I watched the show revolved around the show’s central Nate-David dynamic. If I had to sum up the difference between these two brothers in a couple of sentences, I’d say Nate believes the world could be fair and consequence-free if everyone simply played it cool, while David believes the world is inherently unfair and every action is laden with crippling consequences. Watching the show in college, I was drawn to Nate’s apparent placidity and wished David could learn more from his brother. Now I see how they both have a skewed version of reality, although Nate bends reality in an effort to bring himself more pleasure, while David’s world is designed to bring him more righteous pain.
Watching the show a second time for TV Club Classic, though, I took a special interest in Claire, whom I notice gets short shrift in your summation of the season. She’s easy to overlook, but she’s more than a stock rebel-teenager character. The other Fishers are hardened; their mold has been cast. Their quest is to create some cracks in that mold and undo the self-defeating patterns they’ve fallen into. Claire’s clay, though, is still malleable. She’s still forming. And that makes her arc special for me—as much as the others are trying to understand what being a Fisher has meant in their lives, she’s trying to decide what it does mean and will mean. I also noticed Claire more this time around because I had been spending more time with my own sister, who is the youngest in a family with three older brothers. Although my sister is older and more mature than Claire, I did have a newfound interest in the experience of being the youngest sibling and the only girl. So what did you think of Claire?
As for the matter of Six Feet Under inspiring a rooting interest, that’s a tough one. It’s not a “root root root for the home team” type of show. I can’t tell whether you’re just saying you didn’t have something to root for, or whether you’re making a more potent statement—that you simply didn’t care about the characters. Because I care deeply about them, and my main hope for them is that they find a way to grow—to discard what they believe to be absolute truths about the way life Should Be Lived, and to find new truths. Of course, this goes for a lot of characters in fiction, including many of those on Friday Night Lights, a show that’s about football the same way Six Feet Under is about death.
So what I really want to know is, did the first season of Six Feet Under make you care? And what did you care about?
Steve: I didn’t mean to give the impression that I think the characters on Six Feet Under bared their souls and I shrugged with indifference. I’m overstating it, but you know what I mean. I guess the more I think about it, the more my feelings about the characters probably mirror what they experience after the passing of Nathaniel Sr.
Let me explain with an example. One of the more infuriating, emotional journeys in the first season (and I mean that in a compelling, great-for-TV way) is David’s struggle to balance his loyalty to his father with his loyalty to himself. He spent his entire life trying to please his father while hiding his sinful life as a gay man—something he thinks his father would have chastised him for, though we later find out that he knew. The Fishers have one view of David, who freaks out about every detail of a memorial service and brushes his hair in exactly the same way every morning. When he’s around Keith, his badass cop boyfriend, things change. In the episode where Claire steals the foot from the basement and places it in the locker of a chatty foot-fetish classmate, she spends time searching for the foot alongside Keith, who is doing David a favor by taking the case on personally. Claire asks Keith what he could possibly see in her brother, to which Keith responds that David is a totally different person around him. Claire wishes she could see that David, even just for a minute.
Point being, after Nathaniel dies, David suddenly realizes, albeit subconsciously, that his mourning process needs to include time to himself—to finally let himself out, so to speak. He lashes out at Keith like a petulant child not getting his way, then later apologizes. This drives him further toward his sense of “duty,” and he becomes a deacon at a very conservative church, one not gay-friendly in the slightest. This also drives Keith further away. David, now free, throws himself into the arms and drug-addled, free-love lifestyle of a dance instructor renting the funeral home for classes, and runs into Keith at a club before snorting coke and dancing with his shirt off. Later, he apologizes to Keith and they hang out for a night; he invites Keith back to his place, makes a move, and Keith leaves in a huff.
Watching all this unfold, I thought multiple times, “This guy doesn’t want to be happy, does he?” And looking back on what I’ve just written, there’s also a sense of David not knowing how to be happy. Maybe he never did, but in this moment of great weakness, he sure goes out of his way to ensure he won’t be.
I struggled to watch this season of television without feeling completely defeated, which is what I meant by finding it hard to get behind these characters. Do I think about them a lot? Absolutely. But after 13 episodes of me going, “Geez, David, get your shit together!” and watching him flounder, I’ve become almost desensitized to his emotional journey. My guess is that it’s what Alan Ball intended.
I feel that way about the four major characters, each struggling to find that anchor to hang onto in the post-Nathaniel world. With Ruth, it’s fretting over her family being “okay” while consuming her thoughts with a choice she has to make: the stable but relatively uninteresting hairstylist, the mysterious and very forward flower-shop owner, or nobody at all. Nate seems to have found someone (Brenda) even more volatile than he is, so he can give up his life in service of figuring out a person who is an enigma even to herself.
Claire actually winds up faring the best, which speaks to your question about her. You’re right: I largely left her out of my initial thoughts, which is probably because she spends a good six or seven episodes waiting in the wings, refusing to open up to anyone about how she’s really feeling—there was Gabe, but, well, the foot-fetish thing happened. (Eric Balfour will forever give off the vibe of that middle-aged guy who chooses to work at Chuck E. Cheese’s.) But she comes back in a big way near the end of the season, occupying equal screen time with her brothers, and sometimes eclipsing them. To speak to your clay metaphor, I agree, but have a slightly different take on it. I think her distance from the family allowed her to properly grieve without a sense of obligation, and she emerged with a lot more stability than the others. She winds up dating Gabe and finding solace in his ability to really listen to her, unlike the rest of the Fishers, who cast her aside, as they have done her entire life. But, surprisingly, she turns out more like her spitfire of a father than anyone else. While the Fishers were ignoring her for not being “one of them” in the traditional, ownership-of-the-funeral-home sense, she quietly grows to embody her family’s best qualities. She’s still malleable, sure, but it turns out the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
I recently had a similar experience with my own sister, who moved out of the house post-graduation, and has a job and apartment in Chicago—the latter mere steps from where I used to live. I met up with her the last time I was in town, and we had dinner, went to a comedy show, and talked for a really long time about my family and the memories we shared as kids. Mine were from a relatively more cognizant place, but it turned out even as a little kid, she had a pretty accurate idea of what was going on, and sometimes her take on the situation was far more measured and insightful than mine. The trip was a big moment of, “Oh yeah, you’re a Heisler!” And I’d imagine in the coming seasons of Six Feet Under, that’ll happen with Claire Fisher.
At the risk of sounding like a really pretentious TV critic, I haven’t had much of a chance to talk about the Alan Ball-iness of the show. From watching True Blood, I know he’s great at crafting individual moments, both visually and emotionally. But there are times in Six Feet Under’s first season that feel very melodramatic, as in when a heated debate is followed almost instantly by a forgetfulness about what just happened, with the characters happily hanging out again. (I’m talking mostly about Brenda and Nate, whose bipolar relationship mirrors the bipolar nature of Billy’s entire existence.) It’s almost as if, every once in a while, a few frames are missing from the final print. I appreciate the show resisting the urge to hold my hand, though these little jump-cuts of sorts make me very aware that I’m watching a TV show, and I’m temporarily jettisoned from the episode’s flow.
John, this was long-winded, and I apologize. What did you think of the show’s narrative style? Plus we haven’t really talked about Billy or Brenda’s parents, who play a large part at the end of the season. Any miscellaneous thoughts that seem pertinent to this discussion?
John: Yes, there are often times, especially with Brenda and Nate, where one character’s scene may not proceed logically into the next. I can definitely sympathize with that, “Wait, what?” feeling. But don’t you often get that same “Wait, what?” feeling when dealing with people in real life, too? I think this writing style makes the relationships feel more real and is in fact one of Six Feet Under’s greatest strengths.
Why do Brenda and Nate have a seemingly cataclysmic fight and then go out to dinner together in the very next scene? On a specific level, it’s because both of them are much better at expressing the reasons they don’t need each other than expressing the reasons they do. On a general level, it’s because people’s motivations are more complex, and their moods are more volatile, than TV narrative often gives them credit for. Mad Men comes to mind as another show that confronts and embraces this complexity. That’s not to say that shows with more straightforward character arcs are inherently inferior. It’s just that Six Feet Under’s willingness to put its characters through a fitful, one-step-forward-two-steps-back journey is distinctive, and has a certain authenticity that resonates with me.
And then there’s Billy. If Six Feet Under had been a network show, I wonder whether Jeremy Sisto would have suffered more from typecasting. He’s had a fairly prolific post-HBO career, but among Six Feet Under viewers, I think he’ll always be remembered for his unsettling performance as Brenda’s obsessive, manic brother. At least, that’s how I’ll remember him. Did Billy freak you out, Steve? His mere appearance onscreen puts me on edge.
Because while everybody on the show has their own neuroses, first-season Billy is the only one who’s freaking nuts. Over the course of the series, the writers toss full-blown insanity into the mix a number of times. With Billy, it serves as a wedge between Nate and Brenda. Nate, of the assiduously levelheaded Fishers, views Billy’s madness as dangerous and destructive. But Brenda finds it alluring, though exhausting—her family views sanity in more relative terms, and insanity is something to be studied and even embraced. As a viewer, I can feel both sides of this split: Part of me wants him to go away right now, thank you very much, and part of me is excited to see what he’s going to do.
Oh, and about those Chenowith parents, the psychologist/psychiatrist pair of Margaret and Bernard. They’re an interesting contrast to Claire’s high-school guidance counselor. He always seems to have a ready, pat answer that can be discovered in 15 minutes or less, while Margaret and Bernard talk in circles, spiraling every conversation off in an eccentric orbit of their own making. At times, Six Feet Under portrays both Claire’s counselor and the Chenowith parents as ninnies. It’s silly to act like you have all the answers, the show says, but just as silly to act like there’s nothing but questions. Sometimes the answers can be simple, and Six Feet Under is courageous enough to offer them from time to time. Nate’s conversation with the grieving woman, which I mentioned above, comes to mind. There’s another moment like this, poignant and straightforward, between Nathaniel Sr. and David at the end of the fourth season, when Nathaniel says to David, simply, “You’re alive.” But now I’m reading ahead, which isn’t fair.
One of the reasons that I was interested in doing this Catch-Up is because I wanted to ask you the question: Do you think Six Feet Under holds up over time? Before this, Alan Ball’s most famous work was the screenplay for American Beauty, a Best Picture winner that is now practically the poster child for pre-September 11 “arty” entertainment. I don’t think American Beauty is all bad, but it does have a certain grating selfishness and naïveté that have become harder to ignore over time.
So is Alan Ball capable of creating work that lasts? I believe he is. I continue to uncover new layers of meaning in Six Feet Under, and while the series may be inconsistent, it has actually become more profound for me over time, rather than less. However, you watched it for the first time, so I want to hear what you think. Does it feel dated to you, a decade after it aired?
Steve: Because you mentioned that question in our original pitch email, I watched the series for the first time with those words echoing in my mind. There were only a couple of nagging things that felt dated for the first few episodes, and those quickly went away. For starters, by an incredible string of good luck, Six Feet Under has an incredible cast of actors who have, for the most part, gone on to do iconic things. I had a hard time looking Michael C. Hall in the eye without thinking about Dexter—especially because they share a similar, calculated cadence. But of course, that’s just what happens when you watch television a decade too late.
The other is that for a while, I kept wondering whether David’s homosexuality would be such a defining plot point/character trait if the show had been made in 2012. There’s a whole lot of, “…and he’s gay” attached to David’s storylines at the beginning: “How can he be a deacon at this church if he’s gay?” “Mom’s been through a lot, does she also need to know that I’m gay?” As I mentioned before, there’s a lot of time devoted to having David explore what that means, and once the show revealed more about his repressed past, and included his journey as part of a rebellious streak against his father, the less that question came to mind. It’s just that, thankfully, sexually has become one of many things that can make someone on television interesting, not a Defining Character Trait (at least, among the shows favored at The A.V. Club).
But really, the answer to your question is: Yes, this show absolutely holds up. It’s actually amazing to me to hear you mention that it debuted more than a decade ago; Six Feet Under feels as much a part of the cultural conversation as other HBO shows like The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. In fact, I have more conversations where Six Feet Under comes up than True Blood. (Not saying anything about the quality of True Blood, which I personally don’t like, but I don’t judge those who do.)
As for why, I think you hit on it with your previous responses. Six Feet Under doesn’t pull any punches. It begins with the death of a major character, and lets the memory of that character linger for what I imagine will be the entirety of the show. It creates characters like Billy who freak me out—that scene in the warehouse, where Billy hides under the sheet and jumps out at Nate, ye gods—but freak themselves out, too. At the risk of using some gravedigger metaphors, Six Feet Under, a show about death but not really, isn’t content at merely six feet. Sometimes it’s seven. Sometimes it’s 600. But I get the sense the show won’t stop digging until it unearths skeletons its characters and viewers probably aren’t ready to see.