Six Feet Under

Sunday, June 1, 2003 by

For an hour on Sunday nights, Channel 4 gives those viewers endlessly fascinated by the habits and lifestyles of an eclectic bunch of characters an hour of sheer people watching bliss. It starts when Big Brother ends.

Six Feet Under, a superior American import, is set in a family funeral home and begins each week with a death, which is sometimes gruesome, sometimes upsetting and sometimes just funny. The body is brought to Fisher and Sons, run by brothers Nate and David, and serves as a backdrop to the meatier stories woven through each episode by writer/director Alan Ball, the man behind Oscar winning film American Beauty. Indeed, the series carries on where this movie left off, essentially stripping away the supposed niceties of American family life to reveal the seething mass of dysfunctional behaviour that lies underneath.

The opening episode of the first series featured the death of Nate and David’s father. In subsequent editions, the impact of his death is explored through the lives of the brothers, as well as their troubled younger sister, Claire, who is high on crack on the night he is killed, and their prim and proper mother, Ruth.

Nate, played with great charm by Peter Krause, has flown home and encounters the pretty, sassy, Brenda at the airport, where they promptly have sex in a cupboard. It is the start of a difficult relationship, not helped by Brenda’s bipolar photographer brother, whose chief function is to go nuts at every conceivable opportunity. By the end of series one Brenda makes the difficult decision to commit him to a mental institution.

David, as portrayed by Michael C Hall, has his own problems. He is gay but heavily closeted. He has a relationship with Keith, a black cop, but this ends because Keith wants him to be more open and David, a church going, upright, responsible figure within the community, struggles to come out. Claire (Lauren Ambrose), meanwhile, becomes involved with Gabriel, a drug taking bad boy whose little brother accidentally kills himself with a gun while he is supposed to be looking after him. This leads Gabriel to attempt suicide and brings him closer to Claire.

Ruth’s reactions to her husband’s death are complicated by the revelation that she has been having an affair with her hairdresser, played by the always solid Ed Begley. Ruth (Frances Conroy) eventually comes clean to the family and goes camping with the hairdresser, a bizarre event which includes her accidental trip on a tab of ecstasy. In the end, she decides she prefers her Russian boss at the flower shop where she gets a job and begins a relationship with him instead.

All in all, life at the Fisher’s sounds rather depressing but that would be underestimating Six Feet Under. There is a braveness in the way the series tackles death with black humour and often moving truth. There is nothing schmaltzy, as in, say, The West Wing. There is no heavy pathos, only an attempt to portray a reality, hard as this may be to accept for many conservative viewers.

David’s homosexuality for instance is not a token storyline, designed to make the show appear trendy. It is seen for what it is: a deviation from the norms of American family life and therefore difficult for David to handle. Of course, set against the rest of his family, he appears to be the most settled of all the characters and his mother, though not necessarily accepting of his lifestyle, tries to find a way of understanding.

Series two begins where the first had left off, with Nate discovering he has some kind of tumour which may kill him. In the second episode, he does his level best to avoid having to think about this, ironically evading thoughts of death in a funeral home. We see him shouting angrily at the ghost of a 21-year-old footballer, who the brothers are burying, with Nate insisting that everyone has to die at some point and that the young man should accept this.

When Nate realises he must do he same, he tearfully reveals his distressing condition to his brother, and the camera pulls away, as if not wishing to intrude on an emotional family moment.

The viewer feels their pain, too, and this is the point of Six Feet Under. Despite being a programme that draws heavily on fantasy sequences, it feels real. It may be a savage reality but it is still a reality. You believe that they are a family and that they are experiencing the problems we observe on screen. The characters as individuals are not especially likeable but put together you come to realise how they depend and rely on one another. In short, you care what happens to them.

And this is because Six Feet Under has the vital ingredients: funny and sad in equal measure, there are moments to make you laugh out loud and scenes that would bring a tear to a glass eye.

Just like family life, in fact.


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