A drama about a family run funeral business does not seem like the kind of setting for a successful TV show. Luckily, HBO doesn’t do ‘safe’. The network that brought the world The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm was the perfect home for Six Feet Under.
The pilot was written by Alan Ball, fresh from the Oscar-winning American Beauty. It begins with the death of Nathaniel Fisher, the father of the family, just before Christmas. The remaining family members, Nathaniel’s wife Ruth, two sons (Nate and David) and daughter Claire have to face up to life without their husband and father, while trying to continue to run the family business.
Six Feet Under was about life. People are born, people die. People fuck and fall in and out of love. People meet some of their goals, and fail with others. The characters in Six Feet Under were real people; none of them were perfect, because no-one ever is. And the show didn’t shy away from difficult topics. Death of course, played a prominent part, with each episode beginning with a random death. Some were funny, some were tragic, but they always played a part in the episode. But the show also dealt with issues of race, sexuality, politics, drugs and religion.
The Fisher family all had their own unique journeys throughout the five seasons of the show. Ruth had to come to terms with being a single woman in her 50s. Nate was trying to do the right thing, regardless of whether or not it was right for him. David was a gay man struggling to run his father’s business while keeping his sexuality a secret. And Claire, the youngest of the family, attempting to pursue a career in art, and meeting the good people and the assholes that everyone experiences as they grow up.
Another strength of the show was the other people that came into the Fisher’s lives. There was Rico, Fisher & Sons restorative artist, who felt he should be more involved with the business. Nate’s on again, off again girlfriend Brenda, who had her own messed up family to deal with. David’s long term boyfriend Keith was a policeman when the show began, but was far from being a stereotypical gay man. These and other characters who would come and go throughout the show’s run were always well written, fully fleshed out characters, preventing the show from being repetitive or stale.
Strong, compelling storylines made Six Feet Under gripping television. There was always death, of course, but there was also new life, marriages, divorce, times of joy and times of sorrow. And although the show focussed on the great themes of life, it was not a mundane, slow grind of drama. There was humour throughout, often when characters would fantasize about the events surrounding them, or just through the stupid things that crop up in everyone’s lives.
Despite his death in the pilot episode, Nathaniel Fisher is a constant presence in his family’s lives. He’s sometimes there to offer comforting words or an arm around the shoulder, and other times he’s there to antagonise his family, to force them to choose a path whether they like it or not. And all the characters experience the same things. Friends or family that they’ve lost (or even the corpses in the funeral home) offer guidance and knowledge to help them live their lives. Of course, it’s always imaginary, but it never feels like it’s something the writers just threw in to fill time.
But in many ways, Six Feet Under is Nate’s story. His return to LA changes his life, and he is constantly fighting his urge to just leave with a sense of duty to his family and to do the right thing for everyone (but rarely for himself). He discovers that he is good at helping people, and that he seems to have a knack for the funeral business, in spite of his unwillingness to be involved. This leads him down many different paths, and he’s never sure of which way to turn.
The show ran for 5 acclaimed seasons, and ended with what many people consider to be one of the very best sign-offs for a television show ever. Without giving anything away, the show ends with a satisfying, beautiful and touching finale.
Six Feet Under is one of HBO’s most under-rated shows of recent years, when it should have the fan base that its most successful shows like The Wire or The Sopranos enjoys. Seek it out and you will be rewarded with a ground-breaking series that will make you laugh, cry and think about the big things in life all at once.