Sep 29, 2011

How do I love thee, Six Feet Under? Let me Count the Ways

Six Feet Under

Back in July, when I was in the middle of my summer reading slump and when my dissertation-related stress levels had reached their maximum, my boyfriend got me the complete Six Feet Under boxset to cheer me up. My experience with this series was a good reminder of why I should devote more time to stories told in other media. Books will always be my first love, but I love being able to share a story with another person as I discover it. You can always urge your partner or friends to read a book you love, of course, but there’s always a little bit of a delay.

Also, I’ve always felt that what gives books the edge is how easily they can show us what’s going on inside a character’s mind. TV and films can’t do that unless they use voice-over (which more often than not sounds contrived), but on the other hand, a good actor can get so much across with a silent look or a simple gesture. Both media have strengths that allow stories to be told in unique ways. And anyway, there is no point in pitting different media against each other, as fortunately we live in a world where we can enjoy both.

It only took us two months to watch the whole of Six Feet Under, and now that we’re done I feel a little like I always do after finishing a particularly long and engrossing series (think Harry-Potter-is-over levels of bereavement): saying goodbye to the characters was like parting ways with good friends, I can’t stop thinking about the story, and for the time being it’s hard to imagine ever enjoying another series as much as this. I really miss it, I can’t wait to watch the whole thing again, and I really want to talk about. Hence this tribute post:
  • I love that although the concept behind Six Feet Under could have been gimmicky – a show about a family who runs a funeral home and where each episode opens with a death – it really wasn’t at all. The characters are too fully fleshed out for that to ever happen. The funeral home is there, but what the show really is about is people and relationships and being a human being. The backdrop of constant contact with death gives it an added sense of urgency, but it never feels like a contrived plot device.
Six Feet Under
  • Similarly, although dealing with mortality is a major theme of the series, it avoids pitfalls such as excessive existential angst, facile New Ageism, or anything in between. Instead, a wide range of views and philosophies are represented – you see different people coping and making sense of death in a variety of ways, and all are treated with seriousness and respect.

  • I love that although there’s plenty of black humour (some of the opening deaths are pretty funny), it never crosses the line into insensitivity, and no one is ever dehumanised.

  • I love how diverse the cast is. This is true in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability, and it goes for both the main and the supporting characters. I thought it was particularly interesting that the show’s two main characters who suffer from mental illnesses were male, which goes against the dominant trend in pop culture representations. People more knowledgeable than me would be in a better position to assess the quality of these representations, but I loved that neither Billy nor the other character (I don’t want to give away who he is, as his illness is only revealed slowly) were reduced to bipolar disorder or psychotic depression. They were vulnerable and human, and they suffered because of their conditions, but that was not the total sum of who they were.

  • I would love the show for David and Keith alone - they quickly became my new favourite fictional couple. At the centre of this story there is a gay multiracial couple, and their relationship is perhaps the strongest in the whole series. This shouldn’t be worthy of note, but in a world where glbtq representations are still so rare, it really is. Also, [potential spoiler ahoy] I love that their romance isn’t just will-they-won’t-they, even though they go through that for the first few seasons. But eventually their story becomes about what staying in a relationship is like, and it counters the myth that a love story ends once people get together. Last but not least, I love that there are so many physical affection scenes featuring David and Keith – as many as for any other couple. Again, this shouldn’t be worthy of note, but the impression I have is that this isn’t exactly common in a television series.
David and Keith
  • I also love the fact that although David goes through the whole coming out and finding self-acceptance storyline in season one, they then take his story far beyond that. Obviously there is a place for that kind of story, but I don’t want it to be all a glbtq character ever goes through. And with David that’s certainly not the case. (Can you guess who my favourite character is yet?)

  • I love that Ruth Fisher, the family matriarch who becomes a widow in the pilot, is shown to be a sexual being. I can’t think of that many pop culture representations of older people, let alone of older women who are shown to experience desire and are not ridiculed for it.

  • Though not everything was perfect, I was generally happy with how the show dealt with gender and sexuality. I had some misgivings about the storyline involving Brenda’s self-destructive sexual behaviour, but I liked that in the end this wasn’t tied to her gender, which I suspect most other shows would have done. Much of what she does is socially acceptable in men but not in women, but the reason why she had a problem is because she’s making herself unhappy, not because she’s a woman who is trespassing. When she decides to go to therapy, she meets men in similar circumstances, which clearly challenges the sexual double standard. And in the end, her sexuality is not framed as a sign that she’s damaged – she’s just a person learning about intimacy and doing the best she can.
Ruth Fisher
  • I loved that Claire’s penchant for dangerous boys is challenged rather than romanticised. Yes, in the beginning I rolled my eyes, especially because in the ten years since the show began, what Jodie called the “every girl loves a psychopath” trend has gotten really out of hand. But the point is that Claire learns better – not in a I Shall Now Be Punished For My Stupidity sort of way, but rather by realising that there’s far more to life than babysitting troubled boys and moving towards more egalitarian relationship models.

  • I love how dark and daring the plot is. Yes, there were times when I wished they had gone further, especially in terms of relationship dynamics and exploring alternative models, but overall there’s very little they shy away from. The ending of the third season! The final five episodes! Part of me is still in shock.
Claire and Nate
  • Finally, the music: not only did the show use excellent songs, but it used them in absolutely brilliant ways. Lucky by Radiohead playing as the Fishers make a bonfire out of the wrecks of their previous lives; Claire and her friends singing along to Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism; Ruth and her sister and their friends singing Calling All Angels over the body of a deceased friend; The Arcade Fire’s Cold Wind closing the second to last episode (for which it was especially written)…wow.
Claire and Nate

I know there are other series out there I could love as much as this (and yes, dear blogging friends, I will watch Buffy), but for now I want to enjoy the bittersweet feeling of having something so wonderful come to an end. It perfectly fits the ethos of Six Feet Under, after all.

Are you a fan of Six Feet Under as well? If not, what are your all-time favourite TV series?


  1. YOu make me want to return to the series immediatly. Yes, we need to discuss then when I finally watch them all. I lvoed this show as a teenager but only ever got to the end of season 2. (they broadcast HBO series at midnight over here, because it's "cultural" and so n ot worth of prime time *makes angry face*). Also, I want to hug your post close and never let go. Does that make sense? I hope it does. Oh, and perhaps we can watch Buffy somewhat together? People keep telling me I should watch it.

  2. Ugh, sorry for all the stupid typos. I'm in a hurry but wanted to read this & comment before I left. New keyboard makes that I make lots of mistakes lately.

  3. My sister was just going on about how I need to watch this. I think I've watched a couple of seasons until I kept missing too many on telly to carry on. I really enjoyed them but remember Brenda freaking me out. I'll have to go and borrow the box set from her (but I still have Lost to watch as well!) Not enough time! I also recommend the new Battlestar Galactica and Supernatural. And my sis has been trying to get me to watch Dexter too.

  4. Beautiful post, Ana! I have seen the DVD box of 'Six Feet Under' but I didn't know what it was about and have never tried watching it. It looks like a really wonderful series from your description. I will add it to my 'To be seen' list. I can understand that bittersweet feeling when a series ends - it happened to me when my favourite series ended. My TV series taste is so unsophisticated (I love series like '24', 'Friends', 'Two and a half men', 'Glee') that I am too shy to even talk about it :) Thanks for this wonderful post!

  5. Sounds like a series I should totally watch. Thank you for this awesome post and recommendation.

  6. Much like Brothers and Sisters I was well into this when it first came out (Claire!) but found out who was going to die just before the end and stopped watching. It's weird how much death I can watch until it's time for one of my favourite characters to go and then it's all just too much. I'm a terrible program finisher because of this issue.

    But this post reminded me of all the good times and the weird time :)

  7. Iris: Please don't worry about it - I'm queen of typos myself :P It would be wonderful to watch Buffy together! When I go home next month I'll be reunited with seasons one and two, so I could start whenever from then on.

    Sakura: I can see how Brenda would be a divisive character, but personally I loved her. And I know just what you mean - so much to watch, so little time!

    Vishy: Nothing to be ashamed of! I haven't watched any of those series (I kind of live under a rock :P), but I have many friends who love them and wouldn't call them unsophisticated.

    Veens: You're most welcome! Enjoy!

    Jodie: I miraculously managed to avoid spoilers for the series, so you can imagine my shock. Several days later I still break into random cries of "You killed ___! You bastards!" Seriously though, watching the impact this loss had on the other characters was both heartbreaking and absolutely amazing. Incredibly acting and writing.

  8. I only ever watched the first series, but now you have me desperate for the box set. I loved the dark humour of it too.

  9. As I said over at your Tumblr, I watched the first season of this show, but then stopped for some reason... But the great thing about living in this age of DVD is being able to watch series at whatever rate we like! :D

    Definitely do watch Buffy, since it's a classic for a reason. As I'm sure you've heard before, S1-3 are the highpoints, though I still find S4-5 ok... S6 is practically unwatchable and then S7 tips back upwards, but those last two seasons have huge continuity problems in relation to the rest of the series, in large part because the show was primarily in the hands of different people. Still, it's a really engrossing show filled with laughter & tears. It's still probably my all-time favorite show!

  10. YES, I love this show too! You did a wonderful job of noting all the things that make it so great. In fact, it's been a few years since I watched it...perhaps it's time to re-visit :)

  11. I love this series so very, very much, and for many of the reasons you mentioned. I also love how the dead refuse to stay dead. They're still a constant, vibrant presence in the living characters' world.

    The final episode remains my favourite series ender ever, too. I sobbed wretchedly throughout the last ten minutes, and couldn't stop for another ten after the credits ended. Even now, I want to cry whenever I think of that gorgeous, gorgeous finale.

    I can't believe it's been almost five years since I finished watching it. Seems like it's past time for me to revisit it.

  12. I love Six Feet Under as well, although it's also so uncomfortable to watch at times that I still haven't checked out the final season. Watching the season involving Brenda's sex addiction issues was giving me panic attacks & we had to return it & check it out again when I felt calmer. (That's one difference between media for me: film is much more visceral and I have problems watching storylines that wouldn't make me flinch in book form. Although, the level of addictive behavior in this show would probably freak me out in any form, as that's one of my "trigger" issues.) The thing about the show is that the characters are so well-developed and one really does want the best for them, and then they make SUCH amazingly poor decisions sometimes that it's excruciating to watch. 'Course, that's life, right? It's a testament to the show's power that these characters can make so many mistakes and still remain human and largely sympathetic. Even the characters I pretty consistently and strongly disliked (like Brenda's mom, for example) had their moments of humor and sympathy.

  13. I loved this show as well, and haven't yet finished watching the last season. I was really into it when it first came out and I was single, but since being married, I have sort of let it slip away. What's great about this is that all the seasons are on Netflix, and I can now get my husband in on the love too! Mt favorite characters was Claire, but I also really liked David as well. This was a lovely post, and has reinvigorated me into adding the first season back into my Netflix queue! Thanks, Ana!

  14. "The final episode remains my favourite series ender ever, too. I sobbed wretchedly throughout the last ten minutes, and couldn't stop for another ten after the credits ended. Even now, I want to cry whenever I think of that gorgeous, gorgeous finale."

    I second what Memory said! I loved loved loved this show (though there were a few moments I most definitely did not love), and hands down this show has my favourite ending ever. Reading your post makes me want to watch it all over again! (I've forgotten so much of it!)

    You must watch Buffy! And Firefly, if you haven't yet. (Firefly is even better than Buffy!)

  15. I hardly ever watch TV, but when Six Feet Under came on, I became interested and then I was hooked. I absolutely love this show. And the music. The last episode, how they used Breathe Me by Sia for all the future happenings was so clever. Every time I play that song I see those final images of Six Feet Under in my head.

    BTW: Buffy is the only other TV show I watched completely. Season 4-7 are sooo good.

    I'm not as big a fan of Firefly as my friends are. But you should definitely check it out.

    Great post.

  16. I've seen the series twice with the exception of the final scene, of which I'm not a fan (I wanted to do the fast-forward thing in my brain, not have it done for me). Nonetheless, this hasn't detracted from my love of the series overall; I could never decide whether I was most interested in what happened with David's character or with Ruth's. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts because it brought back many other elements that I'd forgotten in the years in between.

    For writing, consistent and challenging characterization, a complex view of the world and society, and an overarching tendency to trust that the audience will give things time to unfold realistically, I'd recommend "The Wire", but it's very different on the surface. (And it took me 4 or 5 episodes to get hooked, whereas SFU got me almost immediately.)

    I'm looking forward to hearing about whatever you do end up watching next!

  17. This is one of my favorite all-time TV shows. And you've said everything that I loved about. The diversity, not just in terms of race and sexuality, but in terms of characterization is superb. We yearn for realism in the portrayal of older women and this show achieves it to a T. Diversity also in terms of relationships and the views on love. Complexity in terms of accurately and realistically portraying how we carry one relationship into the other. I could go on... Thanks for the post.

  18. God, you make me want to watch this series again. Like Kinna wrote, you capture so much of what I love about the series - we got such a full picture of the family and all their relationships and screw-ups, and some of the things that happened in the series or that formed the frame of each show (like the opening deaths) could have seemed contrived or even soap opera-y in another series, but here they never did. Everything about Six Feet Under is so fully formed and so believable, and I don't think there's a single character in the series that can be reduced to a stereotype.

    I watched the boxset, also in about two months, three years ago, and so wish it weren't halfway around the world from me right now. Your post has really brought back so many of the things I loved about the show (and also: how many other tv series have left me weeping after the finale, because the characters are THAT real?), rewatching this has got to be one of the first things I do when I get back to the States. Great great great post!

  19. I adored this show for the first three seasons, and then no more HBO and no more show. I really have to buy the series at some point.

  20. *sigh* I wanted to love this show -- everyone said awesome things about it -- but I got incredibly fed up with Jeremy Sisto's character. I absolutely hated it the way he was portrayed: cause, yeah, the mentally ill guy is DANGEROUS for Claire to know and then? what? wants to do his sister. Because that's what all mentally ill people are like. I went off the show exactly when Jeremy Sisto hit on his sister. Gross.

  21. I love this series so much. It really made me think about death and how I was living my life. The characters felt so authentic...the last episode I watched 3 times back to back and sobbed for a whole day just thinking about it!

  22. My mom was obsessed with this show when it was on the air. I never got it into it, but I do really like DEAD LIKE ME, which has a similar black humor.

  23. I love the passion you have for this series. It made the reading of your review soooo much fun :D I've only see a few of the episodes, but very much enjoyed them ;)

  24. I want to hug you so hard after reading this post! I love Six Feet Under. I haven't watched the whole series yet but reading this post shows me why I should finish it.

    If you're ever curious about how Southern California looks, this show is it. It was filmed in the city I live in: Long Beach. ;-)

  25. I starting watching this show when it was only half way through. I devoured the first 3 seasons, then I got out of the loop because I didn't have HBO. I need to finish the whole show, I loved it when I was watching it! I just fell in love with the Doctor Who reboot and have watched all 6 seasons in the past couple months. I adore it.

  26. oh,yes yes! YES. I love Six Feet Under for all of those reasons. The series finale was one of the most memorable endings to me. I sobbed, something I don't normally do.

  27. I have to admit that I haven't ever watched an episode of this show... I only sort of even knew what it was about. Now I am thinking I should remedy that, but there is so much else to watch!

  28. Oh, how I have love this series! I haven't watched it since it ended, which is probably a great thing since I sobbed so hard through the end. But seeing your post, so loving, makes me want to watch it again.

  29. I might have to try this one. The last tv show I tried because a blogger recommended it was Wonderfalls (recommended by Jenny, who isn't as enthusiastic about this one) and we liked it. My favorite show ever, of course, is Firefly.

  30. Vivienne: I hope you'll enjoy the rest as much as I did!

    Steph: Yes, DVDs are the best. I could never keep up with shows when they were on TV. I own the first two seasons of Buffy already, so it's only a matter of being reunited with my DVDs when I go back home next month.

    Emily Jane: I know I'll be returning to it again and again as well :)

    Memory: Gosh, me too. I can't think about it without tearing up.

    Emily: I absolutely agree. There were so many moments of "Noooo, don't do that!", but I never stopped caring about the characters. And yes, Brenda's mother was infuriating, but even she is humanised - and this was especially true in the final season. I started caring about her far more than I'd imagined I ever could!

    Zibilee: The last season is amazing, if heartbreaking. I hope you and your husband enjoy sharing it as much as my partner and I did :)

    Avis: I also haven't watched Firefly! And yes, I'm completely with you and Memory on the ending.

    Melinda Belle: I know! The music was just perfect.

    Buried in Print: The final scene is the kind of close ending that I tend to dislike too, but the reason why this one worked for me was because they only really give us the briefest glimpses. There's so much we still have no idea about that there was plenty of room for my imagination to run free.

    Kinna: Excellently put!

    Ellen: I love what you say about the characters being impossible to reduce to stereotypes. That's how I felt too.

    Trisha: Do! So worth it.

    Jenny: I wasn't happy with how Billy was portrayed in season one because I thought it was too sensationalised, but after that, when he stopped being presented as a threat, I grew to really like him. I thought that all the problematic aspects of his relationship with Brenda were more down to their family's lack of boundaries and weird dynamics than to his disorder - Brenda is not bipolar herself, yet there were moments when she also experienced those strange feelings, and in the end both decided they needed some distance from each other. Also, the second mentally ill character they introduced (who is never really a threat to others) went some way towards lessening the sensationalism and making Billy less of a token/universal representation. But like I said, I'm pretty ignorant in this regard, so there might be lots of stereotypical stuff I missed!

    Staci: I know! It's just so perfect.

    Heidenkind: I haven't heard of that one! I should look into it.

    Kelly: I'm glad you enjoyed reading it :D And I hope I have inspired you to watch the rest :P

    Vasilly: You live in a beautiful place! Some of the scenes by the ocean were just stunning. Such blue skies and lovely scenery.

    Melissa: Do finish it! Also, how awful that you had to stop watching it at the end of season three, when there's such a cliffhanger!

    Jupiter: It was amazing, wasn't it?

    Kailana: I know - if only there were 48 hours in the day...

    Kay: I hope you enjoy revisiting it! And yes, the ending is a killer.

    Jeanne: We have pretty different taste most of the time, so I hope you don't end up hating it!

  31. I thought this show was great till about season 3 and then it started to depress me... I had to ration it a bit, because I didn't like going to bed sad after watching it. I STILL think about the final episode though!

    And you can't imagine liking another show this much? Please, oh please, give Buffy a chance! :-)

  32. I love Nate .... I hate that this show is over, I feel like I am a fisher....


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