In the first episode of Best Funeral Ever, a casket is sent down a bowling alley rolling a bowling ball in front of it. The casket is on a kind of gurney, and as the family members push the casket down the alley with enthusiasm, the bowling ball rolls into the 10 pins, which have been painted to spell out “RIP JUDY.” The family earnestly tells the camera crew that Judy was an avid bowler, and the alley was where she was happiest. It only seemed fitting to say goodbye to her at the place she loved.
It’s a mix between heartfelt and bizarre—and as such, the show hits a sweet spot. Best Funeral Ever is TLC’s latest foray into reality programming, following the Golden Gate Funeral Home in Dallas—a business that specializes in unique observances of death, sometimes called “homegoing” funerals. The goal is to celebrate the life of the departed, so the events are often more jovial than not. Golden Gate organized the bowling funeral, and in this premiere episode it organizes a wedding-funeral as well. The camera follows two funeral directors as they shop for a wedding dress and a tiny suit small enough to fit urns. The wedding is intended to mime the marriage of this recently deceased couple, complete with the bride “walking” down the aisle in a wedding veil. This stretches the willing suspension of disbelief. But here it is, happening with two urns placed on pedestals as a harpist wearing a wire halo decorated with white feathers looks on.
Best Funeral Ever is inherently a bit silly—that title is silly enough on its own. But hyperbole aside, it appears that for once, TLC isn’t making fun of its subjects. Okay, it’s making fun of them a little, but the skeptical reaction shots and sarcastic musical stings, which color most of its other reality shows, are at a minimum. Best Funeral Ever has elements of condescension, but for TLC, it’s positively restrained. Only one episode was released for advance review, but the tone and style are much more humane than previous offerings from the network.
Perhaps, that’s because funerals defy judgment. Television doesn’t always know how to handle death, especially outside of the dramatic potential of murder and violence. This fall has seen a spate of shows on the topic of death close-to-home though. Time Of Death on Showtime follows terminally ill patients through their final days; Getting On’s comedic lens is unafraid to portray the indignities of slowly dying in a hospital. Even Last Tango In Halifax, a miniseries with a romantic-comedy bent, brushes close to the issue, in the midst of planning a wedding. With Best Funeral Ever, TLC adds a lightweight reality show to the mix.
At first, Best Funeral Ever seems like an incongruous addition to the televisual conversation on death. The situation is mined for laughs, after all—the funeral directors’ wedding-themed idea is a hard sell for some bridal vendors (and no wonder). The planners also decide that two employees of the funeral home will act out the wedding, in silhouette, behind the two marrying urns. The employees are ordered to kiss, which causes a whole subset of problems. The urns are marched up and down the aisle, and then afterward, there’s a reception. The couple is introduced (in a urn) and then sent away in a car with cans tied behind it (still a urn). Any way you slice it, it’s hokey.
But it’s hard to judge. The funeral service is organized by the couple’s son, who wants his parents to be together in death as they were in life. So during the wedding-funeral, the couple’s ashes are mixed into one urn. There’s nothing sophisticated about this clunky symbolism, but there’s nothing sophisticated about death and mourning either. TLC is able to find the humanity in the mourners and their funeral planners, even as it slightly ribs them for their own ridiculousness, which is fine.
Too much sincerity would be just as hard to handle as too much cynicism. We don’t need TLC telling us how to feel and for once, it seems that the network has learned that lesson.
Created By: Park Slope Productions
Staring: Reality cast
Debuts: Monday, December 2, 10 p.m. Eastern on TLC
Format: 30-minute reality show
Pilot episode watched for review