in television

Finishing ‘Six Feet Under’ twelve years later

When Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under was airing on TV, it was my obsession, right along with The Sopranos. It was the golden age of HBO. Serialized TV was just starting to go mainstream, and the idea of a television show that was as emotionally deep (not to mention as good looking) as a film and was still relatively novel. I remember asking my parents to tape episodes of the show on VHS, because I was in college at the time and didn’t have access to HBO. That’s how deep my love ran for Six Feet Under.

Unfortunately, I never completed the five-season journey with the Fisher family the first time around. I don’t recall why I stopped, but I never made it through the whole of season four (I dropped off right around the time when David was brutalized by a hitchhiker).

Recently, I’ve been taking stock of my viewing experiences and trying to figure out what shows it’s important for me to complete. It always bothered me that I never finished Six Feet Under, primarily because I’d heard that the show’s series finale was one of the best in TV history.

So this past week, I fired up the HBO Go (or Amazon Prime streaming, depending on your pleasure) subscription and picked up watching right where I left off.

It’s a pretty surreal experience to immerse yourself into the lives of characters you left behind more than a decade ago. But I actually think jumping in mid-way through season four was a great way to resume watching the show. It gave me enough time to really get invested again and appreciate what the show did well. But it also wasn’t so many episodes that I could get tired of the show again, and let its weaknesses really get to me.

Even after all this time, the show still feels groundbreaking. It was one of the first times a gay relationship was shown on screen in a really compelling and humanizing way. All the characters feel like actual people, and are depicted with complexity and compassion. More importantly, all of their problems are imbued with massive significance. This show has a lot to say about life and love, and it does so in ways that I still find effective. I wasn’t ready for all the feelings this show could stir up but it definitely still got to me on a very deep level.

That being said, this is a show that seems to have clearly run out of ideas around season four. The show’s structure was ambitious: every episode opened with a character’s death, and the ensuing episode had the Fishers dealing with that death and its funeral, while hopefully learning important lessons about themselves. This was understandably a difficult format to sustain for years, and by the end, the show seemed to just completely give up on it. It led to opening deaths that actually felt quite cruel to the audience. In one episode, a man’s home is robbed and then he is mercilessly executed for no reason. The audience never learns more about this situation. Who are these people? Why did the show make us feel for them, if it wasn’t going to tell us anything about them? These questions didn’t need answers in earlier seasons when the show actually went much further into depth on these “opening death characters.”

[SPOILERS for Six Feet Under begin now]

Moreover, the Fishers gradually became less and less likable over time, to the point where by the end of the show, many of them were unbearable. Nate cheated on Brenda, then broke up with her on what ended up being his death bed. David was emotionally abusive to his longsuffering partner Keith, who put up with David well past the point of reason. Claire turned out to be as unstable as Nate in dealing with death and acted out in incredibly self-destructive ways. Ruth was prone to fits of anger, allowing her suppressed emotions to come out in random bursts against Claire and others.

When I started watching Six Feet Under, I used to think these were characters I’d be blessed to know in real life. I wanted to hang out with them, be friends with them, be part of that crazy Fisher funeral home and witness all the humanity that transpired. By the end of the show, I didn’t even want to know these people anymore. I found them distasteful, self-absorbed, and self-destructive. I actively didn’t want to know them because if I did, they’d probably ruin my life in some way.

I wasn’t a fan of these developments, but I admired the show for creating such awful people and daring us to still care about them.

Here are a few more observations about the end of the last season and a half of the show:

  • The idea of the characters all talking to dead people and the elaborate visions they had got very tiresome by the end. I appreciated that these “visions” were meant to reflect the deepest thoughts of these characters, but I kept getting distracted by the conceit — did all of these characters (even ones not in the family, like Brenda) just have a thing where they interacted with mental projections regularly? It started to take me out of the show.
  • James Cromwell’s character of George had a really powerful arc in season four. The idea of a woman like Ruth feeling bitter about being forced to take care of an old partner with dementia was a potent one. I was really disappointed it ended with George mysteriously getting completely better and Ruth being forced to contend with the same issues about George’s emotional unavailability. In real life, we know things typically don’t end that way for seniors with Alzheimer’s and related ailments.
  • The season four finale was absolutely ludicrous and actively hurt the show. It was straight out of a soap opera, which I know is a funny thing to say because the show itself is structured and feels kind of like a really classy soap opera. But the aftermath of Lisa’s death and the idea that it could’ve been a murder was done so poorly that it almost caused me to stop watching the show again. It felt like it was completely out of a different series, and the fact that later episodes barely acknowledge it makes me feel like the showrunners agreed with this assessment.
  • Season five is mostly a slog, with an insane amount of time devoted to Claire’s temp job (a plotline that, in my opinion, went nowhere) but when Nate Fisher suffers from another AVM, the show roars to life again. The stakes are raised and things actually begin happening once more. The way Nate’s death is handled is beautiful and moving, right through his green funeral. What a lovely way to conclude the story of a beloved character.
  • The conclusion of Federico and Vanessa’s storyline was so beautiful. They are among the most “normal” people of the entire show and seeing their marriage fall apart and get reconstituted was hopeful and inspiring.
  • I appreciated what the final sequence was trying to do, but it just didn’t work for me. Everything about it: the old age makeup, the “future” styles and technology, the over-acting on the part of the characters who were dying. It all just felt silly and prevented me from emotionally investing in these characters’ future deaths. That being said, the series finale is an otherwise excellent hour of television that satisfyingly wraps up the whole show. A worthy end to one of the greatest shows in TV history.

For further writing on Six Feet Under, check out Heather Havrilesky’s write-up of the finale. It’s probably my favorite analysis of the show as a whole.