In the beginning of the series finale, one almost expected the opening to fade to white with the following written in black: “Six Feet Under 2001-2005”. That’s how every episode started. Someone would die, the scene faded to white and the person’s life was summed up in the style of a headstone. Just a name and the years. But there was always much more to the deceased and that story colored what took place in the lives of the main characters in that episode. Rarely has life and death been so intimately and positively connected on TV as on Six Feet Under.
When its creator, Alan Ball, came up with this show, he was fresh off his win of the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for American Beauty (1999). Six Feet Under certainly shared similarities in tone and content with Sam Mendes’s film and HBO became the natural network for it, one that encouraged Ball to explore the show’s darker sides.
Running a funeral home in Los Angeles
It was the story of the Fisher family who ran a funeral home in Los Angeles. In the first episode, Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins) was killed in a car crash and the family was left with the memories of him and a business to run. Neither one of the oldest sons, David (Michael C. Hall) and Nate (Peter Krause), were particularly interested in taking over, but they inherited the firm and had to start learning the ropes. David was gay but still in the closet, fighting his feelings. He dated a cop, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), who did his best to support and put pressure on his boyfriend.
Nate had just come back from Seattle and was David’s opposite; loose, relaxed and in a wild relationship with Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), the somewhat screwed-up daughter of two shrinks. Claire (Lauren Ambrose) was the Fishers’ teenager; artistic, curious and independent. Ruth (Frances Conroy) was the matriarch, devastated by losing Nathaniel but not just for the expected reasons. She was having an affair and her husband’s death became an important turning point in her rather dull life. Rico (Freddy Rodríguez) worked for the Fishers as their expert embalmer.
Incisive and moving storylines
Alan Ball and his writers maintained an exceptional quality throughout the show’s run. The dialogue was always poignant and the storylines similarly incisive and moving. These were relatable characters dealing with the pain of living, always physically close to death through their business.
The hurt always felt real. Take David, for example. After going through his period as a closeted homosexual, he built a real relationship, was then attacked by a drug addict, tried to handle the psychological ramifications, and eventually adopted two boys with Keith. Perfect fodder for TV drama, generally speaking, but the writers had a knack for really getting under their characters’ (and our) skin. They made us understand David, and there was a lot more to address. The Fishers had an unbelievable amount of problems, which helped; Nate and his extraordinary life journey was another fine example. The acting and the directors’ eye for visuals made this handsome, compelling television. Watching an episode was like going to a therapist and feeling enlightened. The experiences were often unpredictable, hitting you hard in the gut.
The final episode was emotionally draining. To the tune of Sia’s gripping song “Breathe Me” we saw snippets of what happened to everyone in the future, leading up to Claire’s death in 2085 at the age of 102. So many deaths in the final five minutes, and yet the core audience will get that it isn’t really a downer. It’s just life.
Six Feet Under 2001-2005:U.S. Made for TV. 63 episodes. Color. Created by Alan Ball. Theme: Thomas Newman. Cast: Peter Krause (Nate Fisher), Michael C. Hall (David Fisher), Frances Conroy (Ruth Fisher), Lauren Ambrose, Rachel Griffiths, Freddy Rodríguez, Mathew St. Patrick, Justina Machado, James Cromwell (04-05).
Emmys: Outstanding Directing 01-02; Guest Actress (Patricia Clarkson) 01-02, 05-06. Golden Globes: Best Drama Series 02; Actress (Conroy) 04; Supporting Actress (Griffiths) 02.
Quote: “I know stealing a foot is weird. But, hello, living in a house where a foot is available to be stolen is weird.” (Ambrose)
Last word: “When I wrote the pilot, I had no idea where the show was going to go. When I tried to break down each character’s journey over the course of the series, Nate’s journey has always been towards accepting his mortality, but fighting it every step of the way. You know, towards accepting mortality in general and those he loves specifically and himself even more specifically. And the final, most fundamental acceptance of mortality is death itself. You don’t really have a choice whether you’re going to accept it or not. At what point in your life are you going to accept it? Are you going to accept it before it happens or are you going to wait for it to happen?” (Ball, Salon)