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Suspending Disbelief

[Written in February 2004. In this second in a series of monthly columns on Six Feet Under, the author continues his discussion of season 1. Copyright © 2004 by Cory Pagett.]

How many times have you read a review of a movie or a show that says, "I laughed, I cried," etc? It may seem like a cliché, but in the case of Six Feet Under it's true. One of the strengths of the show is its ability to walk that delicate line between comedy and drama, incorporating elements of both, and therefore appealing to a larger audience while creating complex and rich storylines. This contrast is perhaps best showcased in episodes 3 and 4: "The Foot" and "Familia."

Perhaps it' my twisted sense of humour that lets me laugh at the opening sequence of "The Foot" when a baker, Thomas Alfred Romano, falls into an industrial-sized mixer and is chopped to pieces. While the situation is morbid, the absurdity of it and the inclusion of the bumbling apprentice whose fear of bugs leads to the accident are clues that the creative staff want us to laugh. (Some of the series' best performances come from the minor characters, such as the apprentice. A refreshing element of the show is that it doesn't focus obsessively on the "stars.")

Another light moment arrives when Claire comes downstairs for breakfast and, in answer to a question, throws off her housecoat to reveal a sequined gown and breaks into song, with David and her mom joining in as back-up singers. Of course musical sequences are detached from reality, but with all the reality-TV out there, some pure entertainment isn't so bad, is it? Besides, other shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer haven't been afraid to add a touch of Broadway every now and then. With the past performance of Michael C. Hall (David) on the Great White Way, at least there's a possibility of some quality crooning. (No offence to Sarah Michelle Gellar; I haven't seen that episode ["Once More, With Feeling"] to be able to judge.) I could go off on a tangent about how music is a crucial part of the series, but I'll save that for another time.

I'm certainly not a advocate of the terrible teasing that high school students can be capable of—having been a victim of some pretty hurtful insults myself—so, on first watch, I wasn't laughing at the graffiti—"Toe Slut"—scrawled across Claire's car. [Her ex-boyfriend, Gabe, has told everybody that Claire likes to suck toes.] But after watching her get her revenge, I allowed myself a chuckle at the ability of the writers to come up with insults that seemed to be at the intellectual level of high school students. I mean, "Toe Slut"! It's just so senseless!

Speaking of Claire's revenge—taking the foot of Mr Romano, the deceased baker, and putting it in Gabe's locker—blame it on my twisted side again, but I was in stitches. The writers get every laugh possible out of the foot—from Nate's clumsiness with the body bag to Rico's technique for replacing the foot in the coffin (a frozen leg of lamb) to a dog's discovery of the foot in the field where Gabe tossed it.

Of course, not all the humour is at such a base level. In fact, much of it is very sophisticated, subtle and shows great wit.

Some of the funniest moments are with Frances Conroy, who plays Ruth (and recently won the Golden Globe for her performance!). While cleaning out her closet with her friend Amelia, she remarks, "Maybe Nathaniel's clothes are too dull for Goodwill. Does Goodwill ever refuse anything?" Later on, interrupting David and Nate's search for the foot, she gives them this gem of wisdom: "If you lost something, look under the bed. That's where it always is." She lets herself go a bit when delivering "wisdom" in heated tones to a young couple at the racetrack. Conroy's performance is so authentic that we willingly ride the roller coaster of Ruth's emotions with her, feeling giddy as she wins at the racetrack and despairing in her loss.

Indeed, stereotypes seem to have no place in Six Feet Under, unless it is to exaggerate them to the point where their absurdity becomes apparent. When Claire asks Keith what he sees in David, Keith says, "He's such a little boy. Innocent. I like that. Most of the men I meet—well, they kinda just want me to be one thing." Claire smartly replies, "What, like a big black sex cop? 'Sorry I was speeding, officer; I guess you have to punish me now.' " And while the writers may have exaggerated the stock character of the Widow Romano, it seemed to be intentional (and it added a word to my lexicon. Casket-climber: a mourner who tries to climb in with the body). It also seems to be a throwback to the first episode and Nate's recollection of the island mourners. In this way it can be seen as just another perspective on death among the many angles provided by the show, contrasting death and mourning as an experience with death as a business.

As the somewhat comedic death of Mr Romano signals the tone for the rest of "The Foot," so does the tragic shooting of Manuel Pedro Antonio Bolin (a.k.a. Paco) in the fourth episode, "Familia." David enlists Rico's aid to deal with Paco's family and with some of the cultural issues. In asking Rico for help he reveals he's unaware that Rico is Puerto Rican. Rico has been working for the Fishers for quite a while, but he may not be as close to his new boss as he was to Nathaniel.

Another interesting relationship evolves during the conversations between David and Paco's "spirit." Paco challenges David's reluctance to identify himself as gay, and compares it to the denial by Jesus's disciples of their faith. While it seems at first that Paco's strength and masculinity are simply part of a stereotype of Latin-American men, it later becomes clear that it is not his race but instead his willingness to be true to himself that give him his power and force. David seems to find his own fortitude and finally confronts Gilardi, surprising everyone. Claire's identity is also called into question—by a friend of Paco who challenges her tough-girl act.

For me, the most surprising moment is provided by Paco's gang leader. He calls the Fishers into the visitation room, his tone indicating that something is wrong. He then leads them in prayer with a heartfelt goodbye to his friend and a touching acknowledgment of the Fishers' own loss. Despite the fact that Nathaniel is buried, this seems to be the first time the Fishers can allow themselves to recognize their grief. This is not the ending you expect. As Paco says to David, "No Sharks, no Jets; just like any other funeral. You're a little let down?" I certainly wasn't.

If there were to be a lesson to the episode, it would be about more than race relations; it would be about dropping some of the masks we wear in order to be who we truly are. It may seem kind of odd, given that this lesson is brought to us by people who are merely acting out the situation, but that is the power of quality shows such as Six Feet Under: They allow us to suspend our disbelief, and for a few moments to laugh and cry.

Send comments about the show and ideas for future columns to the author.

Next column: "The Meaning of Death."

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