Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under first aired in 2001, coming soon after the success of American Beauty, for which he wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay. The show concerns the Fisher family, whose existence is thrown into disarray after patriarch Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins) is killed in a car crash just before Christmas. Widow Ruth (Frances Conroy), sons Nate and David (Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall) and daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose) must learn to contend with the running of the family funeral business in his absence, alongside their own personal issues and complex lives.
Though a family-based drama, Six Feet Under is large-scale and ambitious in scope. This is partly due to the numerous expertly juggled storylines and sizeable cast of main characters (David’s boyfriend Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) and funeral home employee Federico (Freddie Rodriguez) feature prominently), but also because of the range of themes explored. In the first season alone, love, death, life, sexuality, loneliness, marriage, religion and relationships are all covered, to name but a few. The cast are incredible without exception; it’s not difficult to see why all of the principles were nominated for Golden Globes in the show’s first year. Michael C. Hall is arguably the standout, his nuanced performance always reminding us that there are vulnerable and fragile aspects to his character underneath a sombre and uptight exterior.
The writing for the series is consistently impeccable, perfectly balancing hilarious comic dialogue and dream sequences with heart-rending tragedy; I haven’t been so struck by the quality of writing in a show since finishing that other HBO stalwart, The Wire. The title sequence is equally impressive, ensuring that for once you still won’t want to skip it even when watching it for the 11th time. The title theme from composer Thomas Newman is beautiful and catchy, and not too dissimilar to the work he did for Sam Mendes on American Beauty.
The show is relentlessly addictive (I got through this season in about 2 weeks) and consistently gripping. If the description above makes it sound boring, or skewed to an older audience, don’t worry: that’s just me not being able to do it justice. It’s charming, irreverent, touching and morbid, all rolled into one fascinating whole. My only criticism is that some of the characters come off as dislikable thanks to the strict adherence to realism, particularly in the case of Nate’s love interest Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). Though insight is always given as to why the characters act the way they do, it doesn’t make it any easier to take.
That aside, I can’t recommend Six Feet Under more highly. Each episode starts with the death of a random person whose body is then prepared at Fisher & Sons Funeral Home for burial, usually influencing the events that follow. This device is, in some ways, like a compressed version of the series itself; the deaths can be funny, sad, shocking, poignant and, most importantly, human, investigations in mortality that can alter your perceptions of life and your existence.
Six Feet Under: Complete Season 1 (2001) is distributed on DVD in the UK by Warner Bros, Certificate 18.