Reviewed by David Williams (February 24, 2003)
Six Feet Under is HBO’s latest refreshingly different and original series that has carved out quite a large fan base and niche on Sunday nights. It’s also one of the many occasions in the past few years where HBO has introduced one of the most original and creative series to hit the small screen in quite some time. The show further solidified HBO’s lead as the most innovative and creative network in business today and left the rest of the “big four” (ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC) to fight for the scraps at HBO’s dinner table. Save for a couple of really bad shows (Arli$$ anyone? Mind of the Married Man?), HBO’s lineup is significantly more interesting and cerebral than the majority of the crap that dominates the airwaves anywhere else. At times during its first season, Six Feet Under even outpaced The Sopranos for total viewers.
This amazing series is comes from the dysfunctional and Oscar-winning mind of Alan Ball, the screenwriter for one of my favorite films, American Beauty. Much like the aforementioned film, Six Feet Under explores the complexities and utter dysfunction of a “normal” family coping in current day suburbia. However, this one just so happens to run a funeral parlor and to be sure, most families don’t live the morbidly surreal life of the Fishers – the centerpiece of this television gem. (But then again, how can we be so sure?) Even so, the show deals with complex modern-day issues that we all deal with such as life, love, loss, spirituality, and the looming shadow of death and mortality that threatens us all.
As a point of contention among certain critics, each episode of the series starts off with the death of a “guest star” who will become a kind of catalyst that will spark much of the family’s lack of decorum to surface during the episode. It will usually center around the deceased’s burial – aided by Fisher and Sons Funeral Home – and many times, advice and/or comments during key moments may even come from the corpse itself.
As stated earlier, the shows revolve around the Fisher family – a tight knit family who has been serving a grieving public for years through their business – the Fisher and Sons Funeral Home. Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. (Richard Jenkins) currently runs the parlor and has his business at a level that he’s quite happy with. While he’s a prime target for a buy-out, he doesn’t try to compete with many of the larger parlors in town and manages to contend with them by providing a level of attention and service that’s not found anywhere else around.
He had big plans to leave the family business in the hands of his eldest son, Nate (Peter Krause); but he skipped town the second he was legal and began working for an organic food co-op in Seattle. His younger son, David (Michael C. Hall), decided to work in the family business however - even though he had bigger plans, which included attending law school rather than become a second-rate mortician. Even so, Nathaniel and David are doing a pretty good job of keeping the business purring along and they receive some able-bodied assistance from the self-denying matriarch of the family, Ruth (Frances Conroy); reconstructive “artist”, Federico (Freddy Rodriguez); and daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose), a rebellious high schooler who’d rather do drugs and get in to trouble more than anything else.
On Christmas Eve, as Nathaniel Sr. is heading to the airport to pick up his eldest son Nate, a bus slams in to the hearse he’s driving and kills him instantly. And so it begins … How does a family who helps others deal with their grief deal with their own? What does a family surrounded by death do when the grim reaper comes calling on them? However, in their own way, the family, over the course of the season, starts pulling things together and HBO gives us front row tickets to the show with their latest DVD boxed set.
HBO has once again adopted the model of releasing the series as a complete season and much like their Sopranos DVD set, have spread the season out over 4 DVDs. The results, as usual, are incredible and let’s continue by taking a look at the first season of this great show episode by episode …
PILOT (Original Air Date: June 3, 2001)
Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins), proprietor of Fisher and Sons Funeral Home, is killed when he’s hit by a bus while riding in his shiny new hearse on Christmas Eve. With the oncoming Christmas season, the family is getting together for the holiday and this tragic event puts quite a damper on their gathering. We are introduced in short order to Nate (Peter Krause), Nathaniel’s eldest son who is currently working in Seattle; Ruth (Frances Conroy), the grieving widow who’s been having an affair with her hairdresser; brother David (Michael C. Hall), a homosexual who remains in the closet and is currently seeing a black police officer; and sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose), a rebellious high school student whose multiple outlets include drugs among other things. The family’s funeral brings out many of the family’s deepest, darkest secrets and although the head of the family is dead and gone, he plans on hanging around a while in supernatural form in order to help his family through.
THE WILL (Original Air Date: June 10, 2001)
In the “stiff of the week” segment, an inventor of a multi-level marketing scheme dies and leaves his family (Tracy Middendorf) with a pyramid of debt and absolutely no money for a funeral. Nate decides to rent the family a casket and then cremate the body – however, it’s illegal to rent a casket. Nathaniel’s will is read and causes some friction in the family as Ruth gets money via some stock dividends and insurance money, Claire gets college paid for but would rather have the cash instead, and Nate and David are given co-ownership of the funeral home. Ruth breaks up with her hairdressing lover, Hiram (Ed Begley Jr.) and David gets a visit from his ex-fiancée, Jennifer (Missy Yager).
THE FOOT (Original Air Date: June 17, 2001)
A bakery owner meets a distasteful demise and Fredrico (Freddy Rodriguez), the reconstructive artist for the parlor, has to put things back together. The Fisher’s decide to sell out to Kroehner, a local “death care” conglomerate, but decide against it during later meetings. However, Kroehner has other plans when the deal falls through. Claire finds out that Gabe (Eric Balfour) can’t keep his mouth shut and learns that he’s been blabbing about some of their sexual exploits. Ruth spends a day at the track in order to get her mind off of things.
FAMILIA (Original Air Date: June 24, 2001)
A Mexican gang member is killed and the burial plans that the family has differ somewhat from the gang’s leader and it causes some interesting problems. Meanwhile, the arson investigators are looking closely at a fire across the street from the funeral home. Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) comes over for her first dinner with the Fisher’s and things don’t go real well with Ruth. David decides to stand up to Kroehner’s threat to destroy their business.
AN OPEN BOOK (Original Air Date: July 1, 2001)
The death of a porno queen brings quite a motley crew to the wake and Ruth is beside herself. David’s lover, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), has problems with him wanting to take on his father’s position as deacon in their church – David accepts the position and wrestles with where his sexuality fits in with his religion. Claire decides to spend more time with her mother and Nate learns more about Brenda from her psychiatrist parents, Bernard (Robert Foxworth) and Margaret (Joanna Cassidy).
THE ROOM (Original Air Date: July 8, 2001)
A cantankerous widower (Bill Cobbs) dispenses some unsolicited wisdom inside the Fisher and Sons Funeral Home after his wife dies. Ruth runs in to Hiram at church and she’s soon swept off her feet again, as she falls for Nikolai (Ed O’Ross), the florist for the funeral parlor. David finds himself the object of a divorced parishioner’s affection while serving meals to the homeless, while Nate learns that there was more to his father than met the eye. Claire finds herself attracted to Brenda’s disturbed and chemically imbalanced brother, Billy (Jeremy Sisto).
BROTHERHOOD (Original Air Date: July 15, 2001)
A Gulf War veteran dies and his resentful brother decides to forego a military funeral in favor of cremation. Ruth starts to have to juggle her calendar with all of the men currently in her life, as she starts working for Nikolai and invites Hiram over for dinner. David holds a key vote in the election of a young, progressive priest for his church and although Nate and Brenda plan a weekend getaway, Billy has other plans.
CROSSROADS (Original Air Date: July 22, 2001)
The death business gets a little slow, so David and Nate decide to rent out one of the rooms located in the funeral home and Federico considers taking a job with the competition. Claire takes an “outreach hike” in the mountains, while Ruth weighs her feelings for Hiram against her love of freedom and excitement. Nate is aggravated with Connor (Stewart Finlay-McLennan), a friend of Brenda’s and David gets morbidly excited when he learns that a bus crash has killed quite a few people and their business is fixing to pick up.
LIFE’S TOO SHORT (Original Air Date: July 29, 2001)
A tragedy reunites Claire and Gabe and David finds a new boyfriend, Kurt (Steven Pasquale). Brenda thinks that she and Nate should pose as bereaved relatives and visit other funeral homes in the area in order to hone in Nate’s selling skills. Ruth and Hiram go on a weekend camping trip and it ends up being quite an experience for them both.
THE NEW PERSON (Original Air Date: August 5, 2001)
Claire does her best to console Gabriel over the death of his younger brother and Billy’s gallery exhibit opening contains quite a few interesting disruptions. Nate and David decide they need to hire a replacement for Federico and they end up with Angela (Illeana Douglas), an outspoken understudy. David and Keith hook back up as well.
THE TRIP (Original Air Date: August 12, 2001)
An infant’s death from SIDS overshadows Rico’s return to the funeral home and David, Nate, and Brenda attend a funeral director’s conference in Las Vegas. Ruth takes a flower arranging class and finds inner peace. Claire and Gabe find themselves dealing with another tragedy.
A PRIVATE LIFE (Original Air Date: August 19, 2001)
The homophobic killing of a gay man forces David to deal with his lifestyle choice more seriously than he has before. A rather peculiar joke by Billy convinces Brenda’s parents that maybe it’s time he should be institutionalized although Brenda still finds herself siding with Billy. Ruth goes to a fellow florist for advice and Claire accompanies Gabe to his first day back at school – and she shares a little secret with the school’s shrink.
KNOCK, KNOCK (Original Air Date: August 19, 2001)
Fisher and Sons Funeral Home deals with a control freak who envisions a magnificent funeral for her recently departed aunt. Brenda visits Billy and afterwards, gets into a massive argument with Nate that causes some major hostility. Gabriel sinks back into some of his bad habits after he and Claire attend a party. Ruth moves her relationship farther away from Hiram and works on a closer bond with Nikolai. David makes a tough confession when Father Jack (Tim Maculan) comes under fire for presiding over same sex marriages. Rico celebrates his son’s christening with a huge party at the funeral home.
Although the show contains some quite morbidly ironic humor and mixes in quite a bit of mature content, those who are up for those kinds of things will find that Six Feet Under is one of the best shows on television today. It is expertly written, perfectly cast, and once again proves that HBO rules the roost when it comes to prime time drama. If things continue as they are, we won’t be reading an obituary for Six Feet Under for quite some time. Look for Season Two from the studio soon …