Biopsy: "Six Feet Under"
My brother-in-law, Jason Mittell, is a media scholar at Middlebury College, specializing in television. Last month, on his JustTV blog, Jason put together three separate lists of the best television shows of the decade 2000-2009. His top two shows of the decade, Lost and The Wire, are shows I haven't watched. In fact, I watch so little television that of his 35 or so best shows, I've watched the complete series of only three: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. This makes it seem as if I am less a fan of television as a medium than I am of Joss Whedon as an auteur. But on New Year's Day, I started watching (at a rate of an episode a night) the first season of Six Feet Under, which originally aired on HBO from 2001 to 2005, and it looks as if Joss has company.
In his retrospective of the "aughts," Jason writes of Six Feet Under: "I vacillate between thinking that this show is over- and under-rated; it certainly wasn’t as subversive, deep and profound as it often seemed to think it was. But it also was groundbreaking in its integration of black humor and drama, its treatment of adult subject matter like death, drugs, and sex in new ways for serial television, and its presentation of arguably the most mature and compelling gay relationship ever seen on American television." I'm only six episodes into the series, but I would like to go on record with a few of the reasons why I think it will take its place on my own list of "the best of the aughts."
1. The Creator. Alan Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under, wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite films of the decade prior to the "aughts," American Beauty (1999). I found that film breathtaking, and remember extravagantly comparing it to Euripides and Ibsen. You can see the hand of the writer of American Beauty in Six Feet Under, in its awareness of the fragile beauty of life, the contingent nature of happiness, the curious blend of light and dark, mature sophistication and innocent vulnerability.
2. The Dark Humor. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer because of the brilliantly successful mixture of drama and comedy, of seriousness and humor, of darkness and light. In both Buffy and Six Feet Under, death features prominently, along with the accoutrements of death—cemeteries, caskets, dead bodies. In both shows, the dead speak to the living, and the inevitability—the omnipresence—of death contrasts with the fugitive beauties and pleasures of life. It's interesting that, after the fifth and final season of Six Feet Under, Ball went on to create a new vampire show, True Blood.
3. The Ensemble. The triad of Whedon shows that I mentioned above had strong ensemble casts in which each character was a distinct and interesting individual, right down to the mannerisms and patterns of speech. One of the reasons that I found The West Wing tiresome was that all the characters seemed like avatars for Aaron Sorkin, like well-tailored machines for generating clever dialogue. After the first episode of Six Feet Under, I already had a sense of the distinct personalities of the Fisher family, and I was already invested in them.
4. The Theme Music. A brilliant minimalist earworm that beautifully sets the tone for the series. I should add that I love how the show begins, after the theme music, with a nod to television formula, and then bends that formula: like Law & Order, each episode starts with a death, but instead of following the implications of that death through the legal system, it makes the aftermath of that death the context for an exploration of the psyches and relationships of the Fisher family.
5. The Gay Couple. David and Keith are a compelling couple. After the first few episodes, both their attraction to each other and the conflicts in their relationship already feel real and complex, as does their religion. It's fascinating and moving to watch David struggle with being both gay and an essentially conservative, church-going, middle-class family man.
6. The Cute Red-Head. Lauren Ambrose, Alyson Hannigan, Jayma Mays. The reason color television was invented.
I'll be back with a postmortem after fifty-seven more episodes.