Six Feet Under Season One
Starring: Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Mathew St. Patrick, Freddy Rodríguez, Rachel Griffiths
Series Creator: Alan Ball
After years of suspecting that this was a show that we’d enjoy, and several months of having the first set borrowed from a friend sitting on our shelf, we finally got around to watching the first season. Now that I’ve seen it, on one hand, I’m forced to wonder why we waiting so long, on the other, I’m happy to know that the rest of the series is just waiting for us to watch, instead of having to suffer through HBO’s interminable hiatus breaks.
You want to know how good this show is? About halfway through the pilot, we were already addressing the characters by their names as though they were familiar. After two episodes, I went ahead and ordered the complete series. After about four days, the 13 episodes that make up the season were devoured, leaving us saddened that we had to wait for the next season.
Six Feet Under is disgustingly good. There were times when I was watching it when I couldn’t believe something of this quality actually made it to television, even though I’m aware of the high standards set by other HBO series. Everything about it is excellent, from the acting, to the scripting, to the surrealist filming. I fell in love with the cast quickly, and was impressed by the quirky filming the show uses to reveal the inner thoughts of the characters.
The show follows the owners of the Fisher and Sons Funeral Home, a family-run business with the family’s house attached to the funeral home. When the family patriarch Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) dies, its up to his sons to carry on the business. The problem is that his eldest son Nate (Peter Krause) has spent his whole life running away from the family and the family business, and uptight younger son David (Michael C. Hall) isn’t sure he wants to continue to sacrifice his own desires for the business. The show deals with the realities of death and mourning in a lot of ways, dabbling in the absurd, the clinical, and the melodrama of death. Nate has always feared the dead bodies in his family’s basement mortuary, while David has dealt with them all his life. Restorative artist Rico (Freddy Rodríguez) sees the bodies as chances to work on his craft, while mom Ruth (Frances Conroy) deals with them matter of factly as the business she’s been dealing with for years.
Death and funerals are what the show is about, giving an episodic structure that allows them to deal with new customers each episode. But at its core, Six Feet Under gets past the macabre nature of the show and reveals itself to be a true family drama. In some ways, its just another workplace show, just with an occupation not normally seen on TV. Just as medical dramas show doctors dealing with patients or cop shows show detectives investigating cases, Six Feet Under has bodies to embalm and funerals to arrange. It makes it interesting, but its not the reason to keep tuning in.
The real reason to watch is the phenomenal character development of the show. Every character that gets significant time on the show (which would include the entire main cast, plus several recurring characters) is a fully developed character, layered with rich context and resonance. I love each and every one of these characters, and truly care about their struggles. Nate is a charismatic figure, an aging Peter Pan trying to finally grow up, both in his acceptance of the family business and in his new relationship with Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). Brenda Chenowith is one of the best female characters I’ve seen on TV ever. Tough, complicated, brash, and vulnerable all at once, Griffiths is fantastic in the role, with a presence and non-traditional beauty that you don’t usually see in Hollywood. Lauren Ambrose has a tough job as the youngest person on the show by far. Her Claire could easily become annoying, especially when her problems are juxtaposed with the more adult concerns of the cast, but Ambrose is able to toe the line between teenage rebellion and annoyance to give a sympathetic character. Frances Conroy is phenomenal as the recently-widowed Ruth Fisher, again in a role you simply don’t see for women on television, especially not women her age.
The biggest stand out in a cast of stand outs is Michael C. Hall as David. He first appears in the pilot as the boring, straight-laced control freak, who seems like he’ll easily be overshadowed by Krause’s charm. But Hall brings a bubbling intensity under the stoic exterior of David, one that bursts through its containment as the season moves on. His arc for the season is absolutely fascinating, beginning with his struggles to meet his boyfriend Keith’s (Mathew St. Patrick) expectations that conflict with his own inner struggle over his homosexuality and his Christian beliefs. I’ve said this before, but I have to keep saying it, you just don’t see characters like him on television. A completely uncompromising portrayal of homosexuality without any sensationalism or the minstrel show-type presentation of other shows that have featured gay characters, David’s struggle to come to terms with who he is and what that means for those around him never ceased to be interesting or affecting.
Mixed in with all the phenomenal performances, quirky work settings, family issues, and surrealist dream sequences is some great black humour, mature storytelling, and the most overwhelmingly emotional 13 episodes of television I’ve ever seen. Since every episode features someone dealing with grief, the show is naturally emotional, and doesn’t shy away from that. As with other shows, the characters often get clients that mirror issues they’re dealing with themselves. Rico is forced to work on a three-month-old SIDS victim just as his wife (Justina Machado) is expecting their second child, David works on a hate crime victim beaten to death for being gay. The resonance built from these moments is incredibly powerful, making the show a constant catharsis for who watch.
If the abundance of superlatives I’ve thrown at this show haven’t made it clear, I absolutely loved this season. Completely blew me away. Easily one of the finest seasons of television I’ve ever seen.