By Andrew Williams
February 25, 2014
Television Revision is a weekly feature in which our tuned in TV critic trawls through the best the box has to offer, giving you a primer on some of history’s finest shows (and the rest).
Now, this is a story all about how… the patriarch of the Fisher clan passes away, forcing prodigal son Nate (Peter Krause) to return home and help run the family business. The only problem is that the family business is a funeral home.
Happy days? Six Feet Under came along in 2001, two years after The Sopranos, and quickly became the next addition to HBO’s era-defining run of programming. Created and produced by Alan Ball (fresh off his screenwriting Oscar win for American Beauty), it’s a thoughtful, morbidly funny family drama with great writing elevated into the pantheon of great television dramas by virtue of the exquisite acting on display. This is a superb cast at the top of their game, and it’s a pleasure to watch them work.
Each episode opens with a death. It’s a brilliant conceit allowing the writers to develop and subvert our expectations every episode: just as we start to take a perverse pleasure in working out how the characters onscreen might perish, the next episode begins with unspeakable tragedy. One episode might tell a sad short story and the next might make a political point. It’s a poignant reminder that we die as we live, with all the inherent tragedy and comedy. It’s just one of many elements that make Six Feet Under a special show.
The pilot aside, this first season is a hugely confident start to a series that wouldn’t overstay its welcome (it ran just five seasons and the finale is regarded as one of the best of all time). Some storylines do veer way off the path of relevance and the plot movement is often glacial, but almost every aspect has something to recommend it.
The final frontier: Stellar performances are the highlight of this highly enjoyable and thought-provoking season of television.
Top three episodes: 6) The Room. Our conflating ideas of our parents as we imagine them and who they actually are is explored poetically and meaningfully, anchored by one in a series of pitch-perfect Peter Krause performances. 3) The Foot. Life at a funeral home is a deep vein of black humour, and this episode mines it to perfection. 12) A Private Life. Nate’s brother David (Michael C. Hall) battles his personal demons as Six Feet Under significantly explores sexuality, shame and honesty.
Worst episode: The pilot isn’t bad by any stretch, but features four tone-deaf fake commercials for funeral products that are intended as satire but come off as cheap jokes in an episode otherwise brimming with sophistication.
Season MVP: Hall’s performance as the uptight, closeted, conflicted David is absolutely pitch-perfect. It’s all in the small moments as David slowly unravels from the bundle of repressed emotions at the start of the pilot to slowly embrace who he is and how he should treat the world around him. It’s the first season’s most deeply involving and poignant storyline, and it’s only elevated by Hall’s superb work in the part.
Six Feet Under is available on Quickflix.