In my own experience, I’ve learned that, by and large, life is about gradual realizations; we slowly discover a lot about ourselves over the course of years and decades spent in school and in work, falling in and out of love, moving in and out with friends and lovers, and, eventually, for many of us, in becoming a parent. But in the death of a close one — a spouse, parent, sibling, best friend or, god forbid, a child — self-realizations come painfully quick and they shine bright, swallowing you up whole in their radiant misery. Putting aside the intense feelings of loss — the vacancy that opens up in your world — there’s also the matter of coping, and in death, you figure out real goddamn quick what kind of mourner you are. A decade ago, when my father Ledgered himself (it’s so nice to have a nice pop-culture reference now, thanks Heath!), I realized almost instantly that I was one of those denial motherfuckers, the sort who can make 20 intensely uncomfortable wisecracks before the body stops twitching, and then go on acting like it never happened.
But then there was the service — now, there’s a day in your life that gets seared inexorably into your memory like a wet footprint that never dries. In my case, we were unable to afford an actual funeral, but a local parlor was nice enough to lay my Pops down on a steel table for a few hours so we could look at the man before they threw him in the oven. Thinking I could somehow beat the system and keep that asshole alive in my mind, I flat-out refused to walk in, instead choosing to stand outside the door of a small room while my siblings walked in and took turns weeping over the man’s corpse. But, damned if they didn’t leave the door open just a crack. And now, the lasting image I have of my father is not of him waving goodbye from behind a screen door as I drove off to law school. Nope. It’s the foot I glimpsed from between that gap in the door — the goddamn four-year-old Payless fake leather high-top sneaker he was wearing, toe pointed straight up.
And then … and then, there are all those deeply sympathetic things people like to say when they’re trying to make you feel better after a loss. I know it comes from a good place and all, but here’s some advice: Put a lid on it, all right? That shit is empty. When I was going through it, I didn’t want to hear, “He’s in a better place now,” because, first of all, don’t try to minimize my pain, asshole; second of all, if you’re religious, you goddamn know good and well he’s not in a better place, unless they’ve made some significant upgrades in hell I hadn’t heard about; and third, if you’re not religious, then you’re a literalist, and that better place is apparently a cardboard box sitting in the back seat of my sister’s car because we couldn’t afford an urn, so shut the fuck up, already.
See: We each grieve in our own ways.
At least in its embodiment, manifested throughout the first season, that’s what “Six Feet Under” was all about: The different ways in which people deal with grief. Any fan of “SFU” will probably tell you that the end of the series finale was, and may always be, the most emotionally wracking five minutes in television history, something I can write without an ounce of hyperbole. But, to get to Sia Furler and “Breathe Me,” we had to endure seasons two through five. While there were flashes of brilliance in all four of them (and the last three episodes were the series’ best), most of those seasons were wildly uneven, sometimes overly melodramatic, and sometimes horribly bleak or painfully grating, as in the case of almost all of Lili Taylor’s story arc, an entire season-and-a-half I wish they could do over, but for the part where Lili’s character dies, the happiest moment of the entire run, at least for the viewer (don’t get me wrong, I love Lili Taylor, but her character may go down in the all-time annals of television buzzkills).
That first season, however, was almost perfect, precisely the show that Alan Ball (screenwriter, American Beauty) set out to make, one that focused equally on 1) the Fisher family and their grief after the family patriarch succumbed to the business end of a city bus, and 2) the bodies they buried and their survivors, the loved ones to whom they sold coffins. Indeed, buried (*cringe*) beneath the conventional family drama, “Six Feet Under” was the best examination of death ever put on the small screen.
At the center of “Six Feet Under” was Fisher & Sons, a family-run, independent mortuary in suburban Los Angeles. A character-driven drama, the family and their defining characteristics were almost entirely revealed in the pilot episode: Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy) was the stern matriarch with a deeply repressed Id; David Fisher (Michael C. Hall), the closeted funeral director, was Ruth’s repression borne out, while his brother, Nate (Peter Krause), epitomized Ruth’s inner wild streak. David and Nate were polar opposites: Nate a liberated free spirit trying to find his way back into the stability of the cage, and David a reticent, corked-up tight-ass dying to crawl out from under his own skin and unleash his libido on half of the gay citizenry of L.A. And then there was Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose), the forgotten teenager; angsty and insecure, Claire personified all that Ball didn’t get to say about the evils of suburbia in American Beauty. The other main characters, at least in the first season, were: Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), Nate’s girlfriend, a former child genius and the self-destructive product of an unrelentingly dysfunctional family; Billy (Jeremy Sisto), Brenda’s bipolar brother; Frederico (Freddy Rodriguez), a brilliant restorative artist with a very unwaveringly traditional sense of morality; and finally, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), David’s temperamental on-again off-again lover.
Each episode began with a death (starting with Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. in the pilot), and the rest of the episode would explore its repercussions, how it affected the survivors, and how, thematically, the expiration of that life played into the lives of the Fisher family. In later seasons, this conceit was largely abandoned in favor of focusing primarily on the family traumas, each season seemingly following one or more of the major characters into their downward spirals, as Ball and Co. amped up everything by hundreds of decibels, discarding the character’s moral centers and involving them in threesomes, orgies, abductions, and wildly unbelievable affairs, unwisely turning the show’s focus onto Ball’s apparent obsession with sex.
That’s why re-watching Season One again is so refreshing. It was simpler, tightly focused on the family coming to terms with Nathaniel’s death and the realizations they made about themselves while grappling with questions of a philosophical and religious nature, though it is — at times — hard to watch, knowing what you know about the characters’ ultimate fates (Nate’s was sealed in the last episode, when his brain tumor was revealed). That season also explored Death as an Industry, the cold business of dying — the financial exploitation, the detached corporate franchising and the cookie-cutter, assembly-line processing of corpses.
But we also got a tasting menu of the different kinds of grief put on display by the family: David bottled his in, Claire coped with drugs, and Ruth spent a lot of her time alternating between catatonia and inappropriate outbursts, at one time calmly stating, “Your father is dead and my pot roast is ruined,” while at another, screaming, “I’m not fine. I’m a whore!” Nate was probably the character most people identified with, or at least I did, and his take on grief was exemplified daringly during his father’s funeral when he refused to shake salt on his coffin: “What is this stupid salt shaker … fuck tradition! He was our father! I intend to honor the old bastard by showing the world just how fucked up and shitty I feel because he’s dead.”
Aside from one of the better pilot episodes I’ve seen, Season One also featured the shooting death of a gang member, which convinced the religiously conservative David to own his homosexuality, and the curbing hate-murder of a gay teenager, which prompted David to come out of the closet to his mother (after attacking a Fred Phelps-like protestor at the funeral). In fact, David’s story arc was the first season’s strongest, as we watched him slowly come out of his shell and stop hating himself for being gay. My favorite episode, however, was “The Room,” where an elderly man lost his wife of 56 years and couldn’t bring himself to sleep alone, so he slept next to his wife’s coffin and, ultimately, wound up dying while holding her hand right there in the funeral home, a scene that will jerk the tears right out of your fucking eyes.
The first season was not entirely without its drawbacks, however. While I initially loved the anti-relationship between Nate and Brenda (no two people were ever meant not to be together more), the entire Billy ordeal and Brenda’s skeevy sibling relationship — which clung to the entire series’ run — annoyed me endlessly, if only because it distracted attention away from the issues that mattered to me most, namely the show’s preoccupation with both the irony of life and the grieving process.
Indeed, the show was at its best when it focused simply on the deaths — when it used the loss of life to prove a point about living. Like no other show before or since, “Six Feet Under” confronted death head on, splintering taboos, and taking a hundred different maxims and extracting all the cliché out of them, making us appreciate what death meant without the torture of “He’s in a better place now.” In fact, in the final episode of that season, Nate offered up the best thing I think anyone has ever said about dying, something that — ten years after my own father’s passing — still manages to offer me a small amount of consolation. When a hysterical woman asked Nate, “Why do people die?” he paused briefly, and then offered the perfect rejoinder: “To make life important.”
How unbelievably true is that?
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Guides | March 18, 2008 | Comments ()