Six Feet Under (2001-2005)

I have never seen a TV series as emotionally devastating, and perhaps as satisfying, as HBO’s Six Feet Under.

Over the past year or so, I have worked my way through five seasons with the Fischer family, who run a funeral home in Los Angeles. As can be expected with a series with such content, it is often very grim and filled with heavy thematic material. In addition to death, we are often confronted with issues of intrafamily conflict, drug abuse and addiction, terminating pregnancies, infidelity, incest, and everything in between. For a show this serious in tone, it certainly earns its chops.

While it does balance these themes with glimpses of humor and fantasy, the show is mostly a realistic but wholly human drama. Six Feet Underdoes not try to take the easy way out of any storyline or reduce its wonderfully developed characters to caricature. The artistic, liberal daughter surprises herself by falling in love with a conservative lawyer. The uptight mother occasionally literally lets her hair down and barrels through bottles of wine and drug experimentation. The list goes on and on.

This show is so special and so extraordinary because it fosters these characters who are consistent yet surprising; this is a difficult balance that most shows do not achieve, and do it convincingly. Over a mere sixtysomething episodes, this family does become alive to us, and makes the finale that much more heartbreaking.

The series finale is easily the most emotionally traumatic episode of television I’ve ever seen. Hands down. The loss of the “main” character Nate (even though all the Fischers, and then some, are essential to the show) was devastating enough, but watching the deaths of all of the family and those we the audience have come to love has upset me in a way no other television, or maybe artistic work period, has. THAT, however, is the hallmark of great television. It transcended the line between what is fiction and made it real to the viewer, overcoming the nearly impossible challenge all art faces.

I initially became interested in Six Feet Under because creator Alan Ball also made the excellent HBO series True Blood, and I am so happy I put in the effort. He has given us a wonderfully ambitious series, that meets and surpasses any expectations of a show that tackles death on a weekly basis.This is a series that often challenges and provokes the meaning of life and what we can do to make our short time on Earth worthwhile. It does not try to offer any easy answers and it does not condescend its audience to teach us any lessons. What it does do, very effectively, is present us a five-year window into the lives of a family that we can’t help but see ourselves in, and forces us to re-examine our own lives and how to make the most of what we have. This is one of the few TV series I can call important and even essential viewing.