The movie American Beauty completely captivated me. I watched it three times within the span of two days and listened to the entirety of both audio commentaries by the director, Sam Mendes, and the writer, Alan Ball. American Beauty raised such disturbing and profound questions about American society and families. When I learned that Ball had also written HBO’s television series Six Feet Under, which I had not seen at the time, I had to get my hands on the DVDs.
I finished all five seasons in eight months, and I must say, what a journey.
It’s a show about a family that runs a funeral home in contemporary suburban California. Ball intended the show to confront its audience with the awful and unintelligible concept of death and all the emotions and issues that arise from it. The show is very successful in this respect. Nathaniel Fisher, the father of the central family, dies within minutes of the opening of the pilot episode.
Six Feet Under is edgy, sophisticated, and dense. It doesn’t shield its audience from difficult issues such as sex, death, and violence. For that I am thankful. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for happy endings, more answers than questions, or a set of characters whose lives steadily improve, look elsewhere.
It’s extremely frustrating how a character will show signs of extraordinary personal development and strength in one episode and suddenly in the next they’ll completely self-destruct and relapse into previous modes of damaging behavior. I’m sometimes amazed at how they can’t seem to get their life together, resist temptation, or restrain their emotions and act rationally. And needless to say, there’s so much drama, really fucked up drama.
After her husband’s death, Ruth seems to be developing a life of her own, exploring new interests, and finding happiness. But you discover she’s never content with any of the men with whom she begins a relationship. She is constantly burdened by her role as the mother of the family, one she simultaneously curses and yet cannot conscionably relinquish. She skips around from interest to interest never finding lasting meaning or contentment. (As of this writing, Mr. Ball in his audio commentary has disagreed with me, pointing out how Ruth is finally learning to stand up for herself and draw a line on how much she will sacrifice herself for others in the last season.)
At other times I’m amazed at the characters’ emotional and spiritual strength. The strongest example of this is Keith and David. Their relationship develops from the series’ beginning as couple struggling with unresolved issues about sexuality and trust into two responsible adults raising two kids of their own. David has overcome his shame about being gay, and Keith in the last season demonstrates his immense capacity for patience and tolerance.
Six Feet Under is definitely not a static show. You can see it evolving through the seasons. Mr. Ball had the good sense to cut the extremely strange advertisements for embalming products featured in the first episode. In certain episodes, there would be a parallel between the emotional issues a main character dealt with and the life of the individual who died in the opening scenes. The deceased would talk to the main characters as if they were alive and oftentimes offered advice or at other times played devil’s advocate. This occurred less and less throughout the series. The writers probably thought this was too predictable and unrealistically coincidental. Besides, by this point the audience is already invested enough in the main characters that any time spent on peripheral stories is unnecessary.
It is so hard to watch one of your favorite television series end. It is even harder to watch the deaths of every major character in the end. By the end of the fifth season, they have shared five years of their life with you. But to be true to the show, they must pass away as well. For if we have learned anything from Mr. Ball, it is that nothing is permanent.