Two months before the Sopranos finale would air, Vanity Fair published a story on the series and its creator, David Chase. On the cover: an anonymous naked woman sitting on the lap of a rather grim-looking James Gandolfini, with an equally grim Chase, shadowed and lurking, on the floor beside them. Inside: a full-page photo spread of the show’s main cast, shot by Annie Leibovitz. The austere, authoritative headline: “An American Family.” The writer, Peter Biskind, worked himself into hyperbole so frequently in his piece that the definite article might have been more fitting: The American Family.
“Although there is now plenty of competition—The Wire, Deadwood, House, even—it’s no exaggeration to say that The Sopranos is the best-written dramatic series in the history of television,” he wrote. What Biskind missed in 2007, and many others continue to miss when discussing the shows that birthed the new golden age of television, is that other series centered around an American family from HBO’s early-2000s Sunday-night slate: Six Feet Under. Over the course of its five seasons—housed neatly within The Sopranos’ seven-year run—Alan Ball’s poignant black comedy about a family that runs a funeral home earned ample acclaim, winning a handful of Emmys and Golden Globes, mostly for acting. But Six Feet Under has never been granted the same gravitas as Chase’s gritty portrait of a suburban mobster dad with a soft spot for waterbirds, despite presenting a far more dynamic vision of what an American family could be.
While The Sopranos sometimes ventured away from its main made man, Tony remained the show’s focal point. He was the boss at home, at work, and in the beds of his goomars. It was clear from the beginning that Six Feet Under would go about its drama differently. Less than three minutes into the unforgettable pilot, its paterfamilias is killed. Nathaniel Fisher’s (Richard Jenkins) sudden death by way of an L.A. city bus wasn’t just the show’s initial plot driver, pulling prodigal son Nate (Peter Krause) into the family business and sparking tensions with his younger brother, David; it was also Ball’s way of saying that the series wasn’t going to be beholden to any father figure.
As the eldest sibling, Nate became the de facto head of the Fisher household, and Krause the show’s ostensible lead. But Nate was never given so much authority, neither in the episodes’ storylines nor the family itself. At the show’s beginning, after he’d just returned home, his defiant teenaged sister, Claire, would often repeat, “You’re not my father,” whenever he tried to take a stronger hand. (It says a lot that such a canned line could be delivered convincingly; Six Feet Under always had a way of enlivening clichés.) Whereas The Sopranos was often knifelike in its focus, with the bloody plot bound tightly to its protagonist, Six Feet Under spread out like the branching arms of a tree. With the Fisher hierarchy shaken up from the get-go, the show was able to make room for a more expansive story. Each character was let loose to pursue their own desires, whether or not they led back to a man at the top of the call sheet.
One of the most exciting ways this played out was in Six Feet Under’s three main female characters, who formed a kind of past, present, and future sampling of womanhood in the early 2000s. After the death of her husband, the eternally tightly wound Ruth (Frances Conroy) flailed from relationship to relationship, experience to experience, trying to figure out who she was now that she was no longer a wife and her children were grown.
Nate’s self-possessed yet self-sabotaging girlfriend, Brenda—despite being conceived as a “milquetoast girlfriend”—alternately spiraled out and wrestled control over her life. She dealt with sex addiction, substance abuse, and a brother with bipolar disorder. Yet none of these weighty signifiers ever came to define the character. Instead, what came to the fore was her penchant for physical pleasure and capacity for duplicity alongside a pitch-black sense of humor and supreme intelligence. Brenda was one of the most frank, incisive, and wounded women to appear on television at that point, and Rachel Griffiths’ portrayal of the character was thrilling.
And then there’s the incendiary Claire, played by Lauren Ambrose (who deserves a spot next to Claire Danes for all-time best ugly-crier). Over the course of the series, the youngest Fisher sibling went from hearse-driving high school rebel to art school darling, then dropout. In Six Feet Under’s indelible finale, the narrative is passed to her like a family heirloom, with Nate urging her to leave home as he once did.
The women of The Sopranos, by contrast, were in one way or another more firmly under the sway of their protagonist’s gravitational pull. One of the most exhilarating—and clarifying—scenes in the entire series is when a therapist tells Carmela point-blank she’s living off of blood money and enabling Tony’s crimes and that she should leave him. She responds that, because he’s Jewish, the therapist may not understand how important the “sanctity of the family” is to a Catholic like her. Despite the therapist striking a nerve, Carmela doesn’t divorce Tony; she instead strong-arms him into legally securing her and the children’s monetary futures should he ever get killed or arrested. The scene with the therapist is startling for its brilliant clarity—the truth was rarely presented to these characters so plainly—and underlines how firmly Carmela’s storyline, and the entire narrative of the show, is tied to Tony.
In Six Feet Under, Ruth, Brenda, and Claire are all nominally defined by their place in the family—mother, sister, girlfriend (and eventual wife)—but they never use those roles as excuses for anything. If they don’t like something in their lives, they eventually recognize that, as adults, it’s up to them to change it. There’s a tacit acknowledgement that no matter what their fucked-up parents or a shitty boyfriend may have done to them, their lives are their own, and with this comes a greater sense of freedom in where these characters might venture. Though archetypal, the epitome of this is Claire setting off for New York in the series’ last episode—her journey to becoming an artist made literal, drawn onto a map of the country.
If the Fishers looked like the control group for what was once the model American family—middle-class, WASP, Midwestern in spirit—then it was the show’s other families that illustrated how the country had changed and was continuing to change. Six Feet Under’s depiction of David’s (Michael C. Hall) coming-out and his eventual long-term partnership with Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) both reflected and helped promote a growing acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex parents in the mid-2000s.
In the final season, when David and Keith talk about having children, Keith pushes for a surrogate, before the couple adopts two Black boys whose biological mother is addicted to drugs. Their decision shows a creativity that someone intent on having their “own kids,” as Keith puts it, would not necessarily arrive at. The two men first had to let go of the world’s restrictive ideas around what makes a child theirs, what makes them parents, and what makes them a couple to begin with. The show doesn’t gloss over the challenges the foursome faces—the kids act out and Keith’s anger issues bubble to the surface. But this milestone in David and Keith’s life illustrates a broader point often made in the show: Happiness is never so straightforward and certainly not inevitable. More important than any outcome is the attempt itself.
In Six Feet Under’s early, heady seasons, the Fishers and their familiars often sought the highs found in hedonism—fucking or getting stoned or drinking or gambling. As the series went on, the characters’ desires settled into something more considered yet still open and searching, as they looked for fulfillment in family, sobriety, art, caretaking.
The characters’ self-awareness ebbs and flows. They act selfishly. Their egos flare. They cheat. Their self-righteousness runs rampant. But they always eventually tilt back toward trying to lead meaningful lives while being good to the people around them. “If you think life’s a vending machine where you put in virtue and you get out happiness, then you’re probably going to be disappointed,” one character tells Nate in the last season. What’s most recognizable in Six Feet Under isn’t that the characters try to be good; it’s that the pursuit is a constant struggle, and it doesn’t mean you’ll get anything in return.
It’s to The Sopranos’ credit that few of its characters ever tried to become better people, even as the series was wrapping up. Writing in The New York Times Magazine in September, Willy Staley traced The Sopranos’ renewed popularity among those who missed the series when it first aired. “The show’s depiction of contemporary America as relentlessly banal and hollow is plainly at the core of the current interest in the show, which coincides with an era of crisis across just about every major institution in American life,” he wrote. Staley concludes that one reason why so many young viewers are drawn in today is because they actually identify with Tony, namely the way he makes excuses for his worst behavior, convinced that he’s powerless to do anything else:
Like many young people, Tony is a world-historically spoiled man who is nevertheless cursed, thanks to timing, to live out the end of an enterprise he knows on some level to be immoral. It gives him panic attacks, but he’s powerless to find a way out. Thus trapped—and depressed—it’s not so hard for him to allow himself a few passes, to refuse to become better because the world is so rotten anyway.
Viewers’ identifying with Tony only goes so far, of course (most individuals’ misdeeds don’t include racketeering or murder), but it’s telling nonetheless. If The Sopranos’ overriding maxim was “I tried to be good, not very hard, it didn’t work out, so now I’m going to give up and do it the other way,” then Six Feet Under’s was that nothing in life, save for death, is guaranteed, and the trick is to try to be good—whatever that even means—regardless.
Ultimately, the difference between the two shows’ ethos is optimism versus pessimism, generosity versus cynicism. Of looking to the past or to the future. Despite Biskind’s glaring omission in his Vanity Fair article nearly 15 years ago, he and his editors were undoubtedly onto something with that headline. Six Feet Under portrayed an American family trying to adapt to a changing world; The Sopranos, a family insisting they didn’t need to. It says more about you than these shows which of the two you find more American.