Created By: Alan Ball – Also known for super campy vampire knob-fest True Blood and Sam Mendes career kick starter American Beauty (or the movie with the naked chick covered in the roses and Kevin Spacey working at Burger King for those not good with movie names)
Network: HBO – Good Lord that network is the dog’s balls. It just never stops putting out the best TV shows. The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, Deadwood, Flight Of The Conchords, screw it even Sex & The City had its moments. Are you kidding me? That place is nuts. Showtime is the only place that comes close right now.
In A Nutshell: Follows the ups and downs of the Fisher family (Rose, Nate, David & Claire) following the untimely death of their father Nate Sr. Oh did I mention they run a funeral home and are as dysfunctional as a box of broken, neurotic, robots? Brilliant
Nate Fisher (Peter Krause): The oldest of the three Fisher children the pilot episode sees Nate returning to Los Angeles from Seattle for Xmas. He is boning a lady he met on his flight in an airport closet when his Father is sideswipped by a bus coming to collect him. Classy! Archetypical late 90’s Seattle-ite co-op loving pseudo hippy, he spends the first couple of series battling his urge to rebel against his straight laced brother and taking part in the family business.
David Fisher (Michel C Hall): The middle child and the most blindingly ginger. The most straight laced and also the most outrageously closeted gay dude. Literally lives in the closet, despite his big hunky gay cop boyfriend. One of the funniest moments of the first series is watching Nate accidentley take an ecstacy tablet David bought at a gay club and then trip balls at the dinner table. Genius. The most conflicted of all the main characters; mainly due to his sexual orientation jarring with his religious beliefs. His tensions are mostly with Nate due to David being groomed to run the family business and then seeing Nate drift back in to the picture.
Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose): The youngest and only girl, she represents the youthy angst of the family dynamic. Epitomises at times both unfulfilled potential and over indulged self aggrandising as the series develops. Tends to be the first one to pout and roll her eyes in any given situation.
Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy): The matriarch of the family learning to cope with a changing world and the loss of her husband. Ruth’s journey is one of the most interesting as she tries to develop a sense of self after 35 years of being a housewife and mother. Includes the creepiest relationship with a young pre-Office Rainn Wilson and a hilarious partnership with Kathy Bates. Gets through her fair share of men as well for an uptight prude.
Rico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez): The Fisher & Sons’ top embalmer and all round deadbody do-er upper. Constantly resentful at being better than either Nate or David at the nuts and bolts of the business but never getting a shot at the business because he’s not blood. Fiery Latino shenanigans ensue.
Keith Charles (Matthew St Patrick): David’s big gay cop lover with a heart of gold, buns of steel and a lion’s temper. Gets a rough ride from David (no pun) at times but always come off as the coolest dude. One of my favourites.
Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffith): The aforementioned lady getting it on the airport closet from Nate she is the super crazy bitch foil to his cool waters Seattle temperament A certified genius with a weird incestuous relationship with her brother Billy (Jeremy Sisto) she is the product of two of the worst narcissistic LA shrink parents. Rachel Griffith nails psycho-genius-sexbomb-bitch like few others.
Stories vary on the concept of the show but the most told is Ball came up with the idea after the death of his Father and Sister. He stated in an interview once “When I went to HBO and they had read my first draft and Carolyn Strauss said, ‘You know, this is really, really good. I love these characters, I love these situations, but it feels a little safe. Could you just make it just a little more fucked up?’ which is not a note that you get in Hollywood very often. And I thought, ‘Wow!’ And that gave me free range to go a little deeper, go a little darker, go a little more complicated”. Good advice there Hollywood. Someone should give Strauss a medal. Or at least not fire her for getting the coffee order wrong.
What I Remember
Family Guy nailed the tone of Six Feet Under with a sketch involving two tapeworms where one turns to the other and says “I may only be a few days old and know NOTHING outside of this stomach…..but even I find Six Feet Under pretentious”. There’s no getting around the fact that Six Feet Under is pretentious and very aware of just how smart it is. It’s the guy in the room who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. Thing is though, it is generally smarter than a lot of stuff on TV, before or since. So I can’t hate it for knowing it and playing up to it. It’s one of the reasons I love it so much.
I have seen this series three times all the way through. That Given, the show is 63 episodes of some of the darkest, at times heartbreaking, at times pant wettingly funny TV I have ever experienced it speaks to just how much I love it. When Six Feet Under hit the UK in 2001 TV was undergoing somewhat of a revolution here and in the States. HBO had been round for a few years by then, but along with the Sopranos, Sex & The City and Oz they were setting their stall as the network for original, ground-breaking envelope pushing TV series’. It was the first time I can really remember thinking that TV shows could be truly cinematic with the budgets and acting to match anything you could watch at your local Cineplex. Europe has always been less prudish about swearing and boobs on TV but HBO took it to the next level. There were F-bombs, C-bombs and boobs EVERYWHERE. But the brilliant thing was it felt organic to the story. It made them more gritty. More real. More….cinematic.
The poor leading characters had everything thrown at them during the 63 episodes it ran for. Brain tumours, suicides, affairs, Six Feet Under was the smartest soap opera I’d ever seen. And by smart I mean like someone had taken All My Children and sent it to Harvard for 4 years on a full scholarship. Ball and his small team of writers used the backdrop of the constant stream of loss the characters faced each and everyday in their professional lives to explore their own faults, foibles and eccentricities. Having the funeral home and their family home in the same place removed that sterile corridor between professional loss and personal grief. Also, I loved using the recurring appearance of their dead Dad at important junctures to provide insight or guidance into their personal dilemmas. It could have been really tacky and has certainly been used poorly by other programmes and films as a way of providing exposition. But what made it work was their Dad comes back as this fun loving, easy going guy who sees death as an escape from the constraints of his life and so he can drink, gamble and smoke as much he likes while wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts.
For me each episode could have been lifted from a stage in the way it was written and played out, which I found added to the tension and intimacy. I have never before or since felt an affinity for the characters of a TV show like I did with the Fishers and their poor extended cast of broken players. Sure I have gotten wrapped up in stories and characters, but never to the point where I felt a genuine emotional response to their various dark and twisted situations.
For all the darkness, though, Alan Ball knows how to write genuine comedy. If you’ve seen American Beauty or True Blood you’ll know what I mean. There were some fantastic story arcs and predicaments that the Fisher boys found themselves in. In particular the first season and a half had a great storyline with a multi-national funeral home conglomerate trying to buy them out. Also the first few episodes, where it felt like they were trying to find their feet in terms of tone, had some quality out loud laughs like the coffin jumper episode. The closer it got to the end of the run though the fewer and farther between these shards of light became.
It received a cult following which extended far beyond it’s allotted time on HBO. Not an entirely surprising fact when you consider it had all the ingredients for a fervent fan following. What might surprise some though is that this fandom extended to a Star Trek style convention, with the very first one appearing in my home town of Bournemouth, UK. Yeah, I was as surprised as you that of all the places on Earth for that to happen it was here. Mostly because as with so many HBO shows in the UK at that time it struggles to find a consistent home and time slot on a single TV channel. This problem has largely been fixed now with BSkyB channel Sky Atlantic which specialises in HBO programming. This was the kind of show though that you became a fan of and sought out wherever you could find it.
Unsurprisingly I went to check it out and it was just as weird as you’d expect, with all manner of crazy activities; coffin graffiti discussion groups on favourite characters and episodes; seminars from the London Times Obituaries Editor, author of the Good Funeral Guide (so apparently that’s a thing) and experts on green funerals. It was weeeeeiiiiiirrrrrdddd, but pretty cool. Unfortunately it was supposed to be an annual event but only happened the once, at least locally. Still, having been there I can say the turn out was pretty awesome for a sleepy beach town in the South of the UK. Which just goes to show the reach this show had even 6 years after it finished.
For me this was the most consistently well written and paced TV series I have seen. An episode never felt anything but integral to the characters’ journeys. There was no flab. But a particularly good storyline involving David began with an entire episode of him being car jacked and tormented. His tormentor was played fantastically by Michael Weston who has done loads of stuff, but was also really good as Private Dancer in Scrubs and as Gregory House’s P.I. Lucas Douglas in House. The aftermath of the car jacking and David’s psychological damage plays through a number of episodes, enhanced by the writers exploiting the obstacles blocking his recovery caused by David’s naturally private manner.
Did It End Too Soon?
In my selfish, biased heart I would say it ended too soon and should have gone on forever. But my brain says it ended at just the right time. Each episode was like a mini-movie at times and each of the characters’ story arcs was just draining over the course of the whole thing. It’s difficult to see what a sixth series would have added. One thing I will say is that they don’t know how to write an ending. When something like this finishes I like to have the sense that I can fill in the remaining timeline of the characters lives with my own stories. The ending they provided took away any capacity for that too happen.
Nothing short of a brilliant portrayal of dysfunction, loss and self-exploration. Just get yourself in to the right frame of mind. Turns out my right frame of mind is any frame of mind, but some might find it heavy going if you’re just looking for something to kill an hour of your time.
Verdict: Five Thumbs Up (Highly Recommend)
What Next For Everyone?
Alan Ball: Went on to write another huge HBO hit in super campy vampire sex fest True Blood. Nothing else of note but to be honest that’s got to be a full time job.
Peter Krause: A couple of small film roles, as with the majority of the main cast Krause is a theatre first actor. He did brilliant Sci-Fi original mini-series The Lost Room. Did two series on HBO series Dirty, Sex, Money with Donald Sutherland before it got canned. Most recently on NBC show Parenthood which is three series in and going strong. Not seen it yet but heard really good things about it. Will aim to seek it out and report for Shoving Buddies.
Michael C Hall: No notable film roles but hit it BIG with Showtime series Dexter. Always one for conflicted characters nothing says confused like a mass murdering police forensics officer. Now probably more famous for Dexter than Six Feet Under.
Lauren Ambrose: Lots of bits and pieces, again choosing to spend her time treading the boards. Turned up in a few episodes of Torchwood randomly. Most recently in Wanderlust with Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd.
Frances Conroy: Most recent regular appearance on brilliantly creepy American Horror story as old version of cyclops version of young slutty two eyed maid who is dead. Or not. Or maybe is. Oh who cares, that whole show was messed up.
Freddy Rodriguez: The one who moved most easily into cinema. Appeared in Grindhouse, Poseidon, Lady In The Water and Bobby. Also was great as Carla’s obnoxious jealous brother on Scrubs.
Matthew St Patrick: Not done much since leaving the show. Mainly cameos on TV shows like NCIS.