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The Secret of Their Success

[Written in January 2004. This is the first in a series of monthly columns on Six Feet Under. Copyright 2004 by Cory Pagett.]

If you've come to this website, chances are you've already seen at least one episode of the HBO hit series Six Feet Under and share my appreciation of the program. If so, you are probably in mourning (pun fully intended) after the end of the first season (unless you have cracked and downloaded the subsequent seasons or enjoyed them on your illegal satellite). Or perhaps you accidentally ventured here off the main page, in which case I invite you to continue reading: You may even find yourself drawn over to the dark side. In any case, what I propose to all readers is to take a closer look at this phenomenal show, the issues it addresses and the cast and crew behind its success.

When preparing for this first column I buried myself in the DVD of the first season and relived the exploits of the Fishers. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it follows the lives of the Fishers after the death of Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins). He leaves the family funeral home business to his two sons, Nate (Peter Krause), the assistant manager of organic produce at Seattle's highest-volume co-op, and David (Michael C. Hall), the uptight middle child who sacrificed a career in law to help with the family business. Nathaniel also leaves behind his quirky wife, Ruth (Frances Conroy), and outsider teenage daughter, Claire (Lauren Ambrose).

The question I kept asking myself as I watched was: What about this show had drawn in so many viewers like myself?

I happened to grow up across the street from a cemetery, where I often played hide-and-seek with friends and where tombstones often made for classic school art projects. But I wouldn't identify myself as "Goth" (my closet has many more colours than black in it). I also wouldn't consider myself a TV junkie who tuned in to Six Feet Under as a way to fill a Sunday night timeslot.

The pilot episode was all it took for me to recognize the signs of what had started my addiction. Through its form and content, Six Feet Under offers some real substance to fill the void created by the cotton-candy reality TV shows that seem to have become a staple in the diet of most networks.

While I don't have any official training in TV production, I do think that a keen eye and background in the arts give me a heightened sense of critique. With a production crew that includes producer Alan Ball (writer of American Beauty), music by Thomas Newman (Finding Nemo, American Beauty), and guest directors such as Canadian Jeremy Podeswa (The Five Senses) and actor Kathy Bates, it really should be no surprise how well put together each episode is.

Story-telling techniques introduced in the pilot and used throughout the show include hilarious commercials for mortuary products—some that are later used by David and restorative artist Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez) for their work on their various clients. Each episode begins with a death sequence where we meet the deceased and learn of the circumstances that brought them to the Fishers. Flashbacks and hallucinatory dream sequences often revolve around each character's relationship with Nathaniel Fisher (and gives Richard Jenkins more screen time). These elements of fantasy provide the perfect counterbalance to the otherwise naturalistic direction employed. Each scene is cleverly woven together. In the pilot episode I particularly enjoyed the abundance of phone calls that allowed for transitions and seemed to be giving a message about how reliant society has become on this form of communication. Two other gripping images were a cut from the scene of Nathaniel's accident to Ruth slicing her hand open while preparing dinner—the blood from her hand substituting for any graphic depiction of the car wreck—and a cut from Nate in the airport closet "getting to know" Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths) to a shot of a plump and juicy pot roast in the oven.

Of course, all of the fancy camera-work and brilliant writing would be nothing without the stunning performances by the cast. It truly is an ensemble cast, with the various principal actors and supporting members (such as Mathew St. Patrick as Keith Charles, David's sometime boyfriend, and Jeremy Sisto as Billy Chenowith, Brenda's bipolar brother) creating dense and interesting relationships. Each of the actors inhabits the skin of the characters so deeply that they quickly become fleshed-out individuals with whom the audience can relate. Indeed, in discussing the show it's almost impossible to distinguish the character from the actor, for while part of their richness comes from the material given to them by the creative staff, it is the transformation of this material into onscreen magic by the actors that is also impressive.

While Nate tries to convince Brenda on their drive home that his family is actually quite "normal," it quickly becomes clear that this is not the case, and yet they do appear to be real, not your typically "perfect" people so often portrayed in sitcoms and the like.

In this first episode the standout performance is given by Frances Conroy as Ruth. The rawness of her emotions after receiving the call to learn that she is a widow is quite powerful (one can only imagine what it must have been like on the set) and yet even in this dramatic moment she captures the quirkiness of the role as she explains to David, "You're father is dead and my pot roast is ruined." At the morgue she continues to have an unconventional reaction to the situation, asking Nate, who has just identified his father's body, "How did he look dead? Will he need a lot of work?" Conroy delivers these lines in such a way that we laugh at their humour and yet still feel pathos for this grieving woman. We get to see yet another side of Ruth when she breaks down after viewing the body of her husband and confesses to David that she'd been unfaithful to his father. Moral judgments about adultery aside, it would be hard for any viewer to not be moved by her tearful goodbye at the grave of her husband (a scene linked to a previous flashback of Nate's).

The show's title and the events of the first episode inevitably give the series a somewhat morbid tone. However, death not only serves as the counterpoint to all of the other everyday happenings but gives them greater importance. Each of the Fisher children's reaction to the death of their father is unique, and provides for a great study in the psychology of mourning. But death is presented in a different light throughout the show as well: death as a business, as represented by the work of Fisher & Sons and even more so by their competitor, Kroehner Service International.

Overall, the pilot episode serves as a great starting point for the season, introducing some of the interesting relationships between the family members as well as their romantic relationships and their quirks and idiosyncrasies. And while the Fishers may have lost their patriarch, as Ruth soberly reminds Claire, "We have to eat; we didn't die." Indeed, there seems to be a lot more life to live for the survivors, and we, as viewers, are interested to see what lies ahead.


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Copyright 2004, Cory Pagett.
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