The Little Picture: Why you should dig HBO’s `Six Feet Under’

Jul 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

I know a writer-producer who worked with Alan Ball on “Cybill” a few years back. Not long ago I asked him what he remembered about Mr. Ball. “Good writer but not spectacular,” he said. “Who’da known?”
Who indeed? Mr. Ball astonished more than his former sitcom colleagues with the screenplay he wrote for the film “American Beauty.” Now he’s followed up that Oscar-winning success with a drama series, “Six Feet Under,” for HBO.
Astonishing doesn’t even begin to describe this show. Beautifully written and filmed, “Six Feet Under” is the latest one-of-a-kind masterpiece to come forth from the pros at HBO.
You’ve probably heard that “Six Feet Under” is about the funeral industry. Maybe you’ve heard that it’s “quirky” or “weird” or “macabre.” Descriptions like that really sell this show short.
“Six Feet Under” is a serious program about death and love and spirituality. It’s about meeting your Maker-and getting right with Him (or Her). It’s about the improbable and imperfect ways in which we seek out our soul mates. And for a show based at a mortuary, it’s surprisingly, even stirringly upbeat.
When “Six Feet Under” made its debut in May, a lot of critics wrote reviews saying they hated it, but that’s probably because they didn’t bother watching all six of the episodes HBO sent along. Those who did were well rewarded for their patience. By the end of the touching fourth episode, it was pretty apparent we were watching something magical unfold on the screen. (Indeed, the show now is drawing an audience comparable to its lead-in, “Sex and the City,” which is quite a feat given the continuous swarm of publicity around the Sarah Jessica Parker showcase.)
A lot of reviewers have compared “Six Feet Under” to the show it replaced on HBO Sunday nights, “The Sopranos.” Which was odd, since the two couldn’t be more different. If “The Sopranos” hits your eye like a big pizza pie, “Six Feet Under” tickles your ears, then slithers its way into your heart.
“The Sopranos” raised hackles in a lot of corners with its almost constant barrage of violence and raunchy language. NBC’s Bob Wright sent out a memo to associates asking what the network could learn from “The Sopranos.” (Judging from the raw sewage NBC has repackaged as “reality entertainment” this summer, not much.)
“Six Feet Under” isn’t exactly squeaky-clean, either, but it’s not as over-the-top as “The Sopranos.” If anything, though, the subject matter on “Six Feet Under” is even more provocative-especially the ongoing story line about the travails of the mortician David Fisher, a nice young man and devout Episcopalian who hasn’t told anybody in his family that he’s gay. In a recent episode, David was made a deacon at his church, a conservative old parish where gay worshipers are expected to stay in the closet.
I’ve seen all 13 episodes from this season, and this story line becomes more uncomfortably in-your-face as it goes along. David has something like a nervous breakdown when he has to prepare the body of a young gay man for burial-the victim of a hate crime. This is unprecedented for television, and thanks to Michael C. Hall’s performance as the tortured mortician, it’s unforgettable television as well.
I knew that the subject of gay men struggling with their sexuality was near and dear to Mr. Ball’s heart. (Two years ago, he wrote a short-lived sitcom for ABC called “Oh Grow Up” in which the lead character was also gay.) But this Anglican angle was something new. So I called up Mr. Ball and asked him about it.
“I wouldn’t categorize myself as being religious in a denominational sense, but I am a spiritual person,” he said. “I like to think about these things, and it’s curious to me all that’s going on in the politics of religion in regard to gays and lesbians.”
What ticks off Mr. Ball is “the notion of these organized religions, that they have the right, through their bureaucracy, to impose some sort of separation between people who are gay and lesbian and those who aren’t. And no one has the right to do that. It’s completely meaningless, and it has nothing to do with God or my relationship with God.”
He explained he had chosen the Episcopal Church because it’s an ostensibly “gay-friendly church,” yet one that remains deeply divided over just how welcoming it should be toward homosexuals. Mr. Ball believes that Christian teachings on sexuality have resulted in “thousands of men and women in our culture wrestling with self-loathing and all the restrictions the right wing would like to impose on us.”
I don’t mean to give the impression that this is all there is to “Six Feet Under.” Far from it: There are a half-dozen other absorbing story lines running through this first season, played out by a large ensemble led by “Sports Night” alum Peter Krause, Oscar nominee Rachel Griffiths and Tony winner Frances Conroy. This show is loaded with talent, both in front of and behind the camera.
In the season finale, the Peter Krause character is asked what being in the death business has taught him. “That life is important,” he says. “Six Feet Under” is audacious enough to say something like that, then back it up with one of the most important and satisfying TV shows in a very long time. That’s quite an undertaking. So to speak.
Aaron Barnhart’s column appears monthly in EM. He covers television for the Kansas City Star, and his Web site (www.tvbarn.com) covers TV topics daily.