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Monday, August 4, 2008

Summer DVD Club: Digging into "Six Feet Under"

Much like Adam's reasoning in the post below, I didn't have HBO until my post-college years -- which left me doing some backtracking related to the big three, "The Sopranos," "The Wire," and "Six Feet Under."

With the first two down, and immediately taking their place as two of my all-time favorite shows, "Six Feet Under" had serious pressure to impress. Having finished the first season this weekend while on a two-episode-a-night binge, you could say my summer TV viewing is no longer in grave condition.

Get it? Grave? Condit ... eh, forget it.

Full disclosure: I'd watched a few stray episodes of "Six" a few years back, but couldn't tell you the season or really what happened since I was completely lost. But it planted the seed that it was a show -- at least in look and feel -- that I was really going to enjoy once I started from the beginning.

Background: Created by Alan Ball, who wrote the screenplay to "American Beauty," "Six Feet Under" takes a fairly basic construct -- a dysfunctional, emotionless family with hidden demons -- and brilliantly matches it with a unique funeral home backdrop. The life-death themes alone make the show distinctive, even if in early episodes, Nate Jr. (Peter Krause), David (Michael C. Hall), Claire (Lauren Ambrose) and Ruth (Frances Conroy) seem like relatively stereotypical characters (i.e. Claire as rebellious teenager, David as uptight businessman/closeted homosexual) whose layers should only get more complex over time.

The pilot finds family patriarch Nathaniel, owner of Fisher and Sons Funeral Home, on his way to pick up prodigal son Nate from the airport. Nathaniel's new hearse is crushed by a bus, which turns a fairly innocuous Christmas Eve homecoming into a catastrophic "what now?" discussion regarding the family business. Nate Jr. meets Brenda Chenowith (the oddly alluring Rachel Griffiths) at the airport and proceeds to "bond" with her; the tone set early for the show's dark humor with Nate learning of his father's death upon completing his seemingly empty sexual rendezvous.

Aimless in Seattle after abandoning the family business to follow a free-spirited path, Nate decides to stay in Los Angeles and help David run the funeral home. Actually, the decision is made for him since Nathaniel leaves 50 percent of his business to Nate in the will -- a slap in the face to David, who dedicated his life to Fisher and Sons with zero approval or affection from his dad during that time. Meanwhile, widow Ruth confesses to an affair with a hairdresser (Ed Begley Jr.) and Claire's teenage angst comes out in multiple, misdirected forms having been ignored most of her life by older, out-of-touch parents and two brothers she barely knows.

Fisher and Sons is also being pursued by corporate sharks, Kroehner Services International, and as Nate and Brenda's sexual escapades develop into a serious relationship, the completely messed-up Chenowith family makes the Fishers look like the Brady Bunch thanks to the dangerous exploits of manic-depressive/Brenda-obsessed brother, Billy (Jeremy "I talk like a Baldwin" Sisto).

Stray observations: The "Six Feet Under" opening sequence is the best I've ever seen. A bonus featurette shows how much time and thought went into it, and from the simple instrumental to the lone tree on a hill and perfectly timed speed-effect of hands separating, the montage resonates on repeat viewings.

The show also starts with a random (oftentimes unique) death so that the Fishers and their skilled sidekick, Rico (Freddy Rodriguez), always have a body to work on. It kind of reminds me of "Pushing Daisies" in that way -- something to get each episode moving forward, with the focus remaining on the deeper connections between main characters. The show also brilliantly uses a surrealistic daydreaming device to great effect -- deceased characters talking to David and Nate, or serving as reminders ("A Private Life," and Marc Foster's hate crime, allowing David to finally come to terms with his own homosexuality) of what they're running from in their real lives. Nathaniel also makes several appearances to all four family members in "spirit" form and stays in the foreground as a main character because of it.

Amazingly, no character really steals the show in the first season, a testament to how talented the ensemble is. Nate is an incredibly sympathetic character because just as he's starting to figure out his life path, he's sucked into the deep, dark abyss that is the Chenowith family. You'd think a show that deals with death would be overwhelmingly depressing, but "Six Feet Under's" twisted, "Twin Peaks"-ian humor cuts away at those obvious layers. But the Billy-Brenda storyline has a much darker, sadistic tone -- with some uncomfortable humor sprinkled in -- particularly toward its emotional first season resolution.

Final verdict: Nothing to complain about in Season One. The multiple plotlines meshed and fit each character's development perfectly -- all in all, a phenomenal, memorable first season. David's internal struggles and Claire's general malaise were the most interesting, personally. Secondary characters like Rico and Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), David's ex-boyfriend, also stood out.

The show also can evoke multiple reactions, which I love. I was particularly moved by a gripping scene in the pilot where Ruth gets the phone call that Nathaniel is dead. In her frenzied state, she knocks everything off the kitchen counter and begins shrieking uncontrollably. It's an unsettling scene. But downstairs where a funeral is taking place, David hears the loud cries, and well ... it momentarily becomes funny without really trying to be.

The show's life-death themes can also be pretty subtle -- pretty amazing when you consider that it revolves around a family of funeral directors. It's about feeling something. Anything. About how our mortality, as unfair as it might be at times, is inescapable. But more importantly, how a body filled with embalming fluid doesn't represent finality. Not when some of us are already dead inside.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski, trozwado@greenbaypressgazette.com

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4 Comments:

I also "dug" into "Six Feet Under"'s first season recently, and found it "urned" my respect so quickly that I watched them all rigor-mortis-ously.

OK, I'm done.

I think it's a great show, and can't wait to watch the next, what is it, four seasons? It'll have to wait until I finish "Tiny Toons" Season One, which hey maybe I'll actually write about here on this ol' blog thing sometime...

What was your opinion, Tom, of those fake ads (for embalming fluid, coffins, etc.) that accompanied the pilot? To me it smacked of self-satisfied in-jokiness: "Ha ha, we're on HBO where there are no commercials, so here are some commercials, ha ha." I'm glad they didn't survive the rest of the season.

-Adam

By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At August 4, 2008 at 6:58 PM  

I love Michael C. Hall

By Blogger Ms. Quarter, At August 5, 2008 at 8:47 AM  

I enjoyed the in-episode commercials, mostly because I found them so startling. But yes, they needed to be a one-time deal, and I did think at the time, "They're probably trying to be even MORE unique than usual to separate themselves from the HBO pack," which was probably pretty intimidating at the time.

I can tell you that Season Two is starting to really pick up steam, and I continue to enjoy the direction of the show. The Season One finale had the feeling of a series ender, so I was a bit worried they'd be forcing the issue early on. Not the case.

Michael C. Hall fan: I will be tackling "Dexter" as some point. No Showtime to speak of at the moment.

-- Tom

By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At August 5, 2008 at 2:22 PM  

Oh how I love Six Feet Under--it only gets better!

By Blogger Eileen, At August 5, 2008 at 4:40 PM  

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