Six Feet Under showed us life in the midst of death


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Six feet under, a show that had a lot to say about time – about how we chase it, how it eludes us, how it always gets the last laugh – recently marked the 20th anniversary of its premiere.

Part of HBO’s premium TV campaign at the turn of the millennium, the series, which ran from 2001 to 2005, never had the media appeal of The Sopranos or Thread. But he garnered critical praise and a devoted fandom, and his offbeat approach to dysfunctional families proved influential, later appearing on shows like Transparent and Development stopped.

HBO is known for straightforward sex, but it’s hardly taboo now. What really broke new ground in Six feet Under ground it wasn’t sex – although there was a lot of it – but death. In a culture that minimizes, sanitizes and masks the fact of death, this show has placed him right in the middle of everyday life. Literally.

The series takes place at a Los Angeles funeral home, Fisher & Sons, where the Fisher family live above the store. Father Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) dies at the start of the first episode, when the new hearse he’s driving is run over by a bus. For five seasons, the rest of the family – wife Ruth (Frances Conroy), prodigal son Nate (Peter Krause), devoted son David (Michael C. Hall) and wild child Claire (Lauren Ambrose) – tiptoe around the hole left by this loss, struggling to reconfigure their family and redefine themselves.

If that sounds morbid and difficult, well, it is. But Six feet Under ground is also – and I hate to use that word, but I can’t live without it – life affirming. The show is filled with trauma and pain, but it’s also darkly hilarious and eerily happy.

This delicate tone comes at the start of the pilot episode, when a stunned Ruth says to David, “Your father is dead and my roast is ruined. This mixture of the tragic and the comic, the shocking and the ordinary runs through Six feet Under ground, which can turn from soapy drama to macabre burlesque, sometimes in a single scene.

Six feet Under ground was never a perfect show. The plot falters at times, the characterizations can be frustrating, and that tightrope, balancing light and dark, sometimes falls into awkward callousness.

But maybe the show is messy because it does messy things. SFU explores the unpredictability and indiscipline of grief, how it can be mixed with guilt, fear, rage and regret.

Michael C. Hall, second from left, Lauren Ambrose, Frances Conroy and Peter Krause starred in HBO’s Six Feet Under, which is now celebrating its 20th anniversary.

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Tracy Bennett / Associated press kits

Michael C. Hall, second from left, Lauren Ambrose, Frances Conroy and Peter Krause starred in HBO’s Six Feet Under, which is now celebrating its 20th anniversary.

The uncontrollable attempts of fishermen to be better, happier people are often confused and morally confused. It’s not a show that clings to sympathy, even with its main characters, who exhibit varying degrees of narcissism, control, and compulsive self-destruction.

But even when these people do and say horrible things, the spectacle remains tender and generous, and we can see the fishermen, along with their friends and lovers, as funny, flawed, fully human.

Finally, in a show so much about death, finishing well is important. Especially now when there’s so much pressure on the show’s finals (yeah, Game of thrones, we’re watching you), it’s instructive to come back to this one, which is often hailed as one of the best TV endings of all time.

Showrunner Alan Ball opted for a seven-minute montage that passes between footage of Claire driving into an unknown future and scenes showing the deaths of all the main characters, through to 2085. The sequence works wonderfully, though it does. sounds like it shouldn’t.

After all, this is aging makeup, still rudimentary in 2005. It travels decades into the future (white furniture, unisex tunics). It risks distorting the sentimental, with its mix of weddings and babies, picnics and take-out football matches.

Instead, the ending feels overwhelmingly cathartic and emotionally real. Like many SFU fans, I burst into tears with the Pavlovian predictability just watching this streak on my own. Watching it after watching all five seasons, as the culmination of so much joy and pain, is perhaps one of the most cohesive, complete, and moving TV experiences.

The effectiveness of the end really depends on time. Ball somehow manages, in a short span of minutes, to capture how the past is contained in the present, how the present creeps into the future.

Maybe that’s why I’m watching Six feet Under ground the fade to white for the last time seems even more resonant now, 20 years later. When I looked for the first time Six feet Under ground, I was about Nate and David’s age. Now I am a contemporary of Ruth their mother. When I first watched the series, death still seemed abstract, a literary concept loaded with meaning but still far away. Over the next two decades, I have attended many funerals – relatives of friends, friends of relatives, and deaths that have come even closer.

For me, marking the 20th anniversary of Six feet Under ground is a powerful reminder that time, like that fateful LA bus in the pilot episode, weighs on us all.

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Alison gillmor

Alison gillmor
Writer

A student at the University of Winnipeg and later at York University in Toronto, Alison Gillmor was considering becoming an art historian. She eventually caught the journalism bug when she started as a visual arts critic for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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