Monday, August 08, 2005

Six Feet Under

What makes for good television? In the eyes of those who treat the medium seriously enough to care to answer the question, it usually has to do with form (cf. the real-time-ness of “24,” or fusing the action drama with the soap opera—see “Alias” and “Lost”—à la J. J. Abrams), instruction, issues, or in illuminating a certain culture (“The Sopranos”). Does the soap opera—even a well-heeled one—qualify?

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Peter Krause
Peter Krause

Consider Alan Ball’s “Six Feet Under,” HBO’s funeral-parlor, er, “dark comedy” that [according to its Wikipedia entry],

…is a conventional family drama, dealing with such issues as relationships, infidelity, homosexuality, and religion. At the same time, it is a show that is distinguished by its unblinking focus on the topic of death, which it explores on multiple levels (personal, religious, and philosophical), rather than treating it as a convenient impetus for the solution of a murder.

Since its debut, SFU has not been as well-regarded as HBO’s flagship “Sopranos,” with recent commentary downgrading it to an “unrelenting tragedy bonfire,” an “upper-middlebrow melodrama” favoring sentimentality instead a more bracing authenticity. (Virginia Heffernan, in the New York Times, stakes this authenticity to “a confrontation not with the self, which its practitioners regard as elusive and false, but with death, horror, being, nothingness.”)

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Michael C. Hall
Michael C. Hall

But, in Heffernan’s hurry to distance herself from the hoi polloi—“weepie cable-television dramas like ‘Six Feet Under’ … appeal mostly to women and gay men”—she (and others, who are seeking the more familiar hallmarks of “quality” television) miss, and misread, the series’ literary character, one that argues for a place in the pantheon reserved for serious, more traditional works of fiction.


Frances Conroy
Frances Conroy

It’s not enough to credit the work of the exceptional cast (and I have nothing but the highest praise for their fine ensemble work), nor to say that the teleplays are smart (though, of course, they’re terrific): even in times of higher quality programming from top to bottom [an argument detailed in Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter], “Six Feet Under” is way better than what passes for good TV. If the sincere prefer to deal with the “elusive and false” self rather than the void, perhaps that is because it’s profoundly human to look the other way when death comes calling.

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Lauren Ambrose
Lauren Ambrose

I was reading “Feodor’s Guide,” an essay by David Foster Wallace from War of the Words: Twenty Years of Writing on Contemporary Literature, when I encountered this passage,

The thing about Dostoyevsky’s characters is that they live. And by this I don’t mean just that they’re successfully realized and believable and “round.” The best of them live inside us, forever, once we’ve met them.

something that describes exactly what we get with SFU. Peter Krause’s Nate Fisher—the fucked-up heart and soul of the show—is chronically unable to commit, well on the way to sabotaging his second marriage, and yet he’s a gentle, confused, and angry guy (I’m a bit too familiar with this profile, to tell the truth). On the other hand, parts of his brother, David—played by Michael C. Hall—remind me of my inability to let my hair down. If all of this sounds pedestrian, and sometimes melodramatic, as plain text in the TV Guide previews might suggest, perhaps, in some respects, it is. But no other document has better captured what life in contemporary America is like for someone raised in the suburbs, during a broad period between the mid-sixties and the mid-eighties; if the things that happen to the Fishers sometimes seem too unreal, or surreal, I would submit that that’s perfectly in keeping with great fiction, too.

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Rachel Griffiths
Rachel Griffiths

It’s the essence of the actors’ portrayals, in the hands of smart, beautifully-wrought scripts, that transcend the pedestrian adult drama. (It is important, as many observe, that the show is concerned with death, but it is even more captivated by sin, the sin of the religious and the secular alike.) If the bulletin boards are concerned whether Nate was a bastard or not, answers are not so easy to come by. Last night’s episode dealt with the aftermath of his death, a death I met without emotion last week. This week I was less reflective and more weepy, a pretty accurate reading of my true modus operandi when it comes to loss. The shift may have taken place during a visit to the mall on Friday, when I heard a fantastic folk-y cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in Anthropologie. Haunted, I asked one of the sales gals whether it was from a in-store music machine or a recording.

“It’s from the ‘Six Feet Under’ soundtrack,” came the reply.

3 Comments:

Blogger YankeeAmanda said...

I came across your blog while doing a random blogger surf. Six Feet Under is a fantasic show - true art in the midst of mediocre pop programs and "reality" tv. I can't believe it's almost over - I'm going to miss this show terribly.

7:07 PM  
Anonymous ReggieH said...

Bill: Bravo for posting (and defending) Six Feet Under. It is (was?) an amazingly rich and 'real' (in the sense Wallace means in the quote you posted). These are characters and people who are vibrant and alive, full of faults and virtues. I think a lot of us watched the show and saw echoes of ourselves and people we knew, and our relationships. They really showed how there are still possibilities for Art on television, and I'll miss it VERY much.

10:15 PM  
Blogger mernitman said...

Bravo, Bill -- I couldn't agree with you more -- and I've been having some great conversations with fellow writers (L.A. had a Monday that was basically filled with writers who wanted to do nothing else but talk about last night's show, i.e. and forget about whatever the hell they were supposed to be working on) -- anyone who appreciates good work has been profoundly blown away by the last two episodes (and let's cite, for the record, Kate Robbins, for her exceptional writing in last night's). I was going to blog about this, but after reading your piece I think I'll just refer my readers to you and to Heather Havrilesky, who's been doing superb appreciations in her Salon column of late. This is TV that will, I'm sure transcend its moment and be revered in years to come.

11:54 PM  

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