2001's Hidden Gem: Six Feet Under
Written by Sophia Anderson
In the far-off year of 2001, the pilot of Six Feet Under aired on HBO. A project of screenwriter Alan Ball (who you may know as the writer of American Beauty), Six Feet Under tells the story of the Fisher family, starting with the death of father and husband Nathaniel Fisher. Ironically, the Fishers run (and live in) a funeral home—so naturally, the series follows the fallout of Mr. Fisher’s death. But as we get to know our grieving characters, we start to understand their lives. Family dynamics are upset and we get to watch as each character handles themselves in all their endeavors.
I spent my summer watching Six Feet Under. Now, not only is it from 2001, it’s all about death. I don’t consider myself to be particularly morbid, and there’s been plenty to keep up with in the cinema and TV world these past few months, but I couldn’t tear myself away. Like any film lover, when I watch something, I’m looking for truth. A reflection of myself. The whole “life imitates art” concept. We all want someone to relate to, to understand, and Six Feet Under delivers. The magic in this hidden gem is its honesty: our characters get into some pretty damn messy situations. They lead lives with mistakes and triumphs. The show doesn’t sugar coat how difficult it can be sometimes just to manage being alive on a day-to-day basis.
Every episode opens by showing the death of whoever the Fishers are arranging a funeral for, which is an incredibly bold way to open a show. It was hard to pitch because there was so much concern about the show being too dark. There are affairs, murders, even kidnappings—which I realize makes the show sound entirely macabre—but what shine through most are the gentle messages about the bigger picture. Like real life, the majority of scenes focus simply on the interactions between characters, or the experience of a single character doing something in their daily routine. Nothing is added for shock value, nor to fill an episode’s time slot. It isn’t linear, where a problem appears, gets resolved, and goes away. Some things never get resolved. Some things seem to resolve, only to fall apart again later. Just like in real life.
I recently watched the 2005 finale, which, despite not being particularly tragic, found me barely able to hear the dialogue over the sound of my own sobs. After the death of our main character Nate (or Nathaniel Jr., The eldest Fisher son), he appears to his younger sister as she’s moving to her new job across the country. As she’s taking one final photo of the family, he leans towards her to whisper, “You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.”
Ball himself lost his sister when he was 13, which guided his artistic goal for the show to “make death a little less taboo.” And what’s amazing is that he is successful in doing so. My father could not bear to watch with me, as it reminded him too much of his own passed brother, but I walked around after each episode, thinking of it all day. Everything spoke to me. In my own relationship struggles, my own wonders if I was living “right”, Nate’s voice would come into my head: “Stop listening to the static.” In this scene, too, he is speaking to his younger sister. She responds, aptly, “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” to which he calmly explains, “Nothing, it just means that everything in the world is like this… transmission. Making its way across the dark. But everything—death, life, everything, it’s all completely suffused with static. But if you listen to the static too much, it fucks you up!” The show is full of little wisdoms like this: sometimes clearly stated, sometimes conveyed just by the look on one of the characters’ faces. It looks at the big picture by focusing on the simplest moments, showing you only the present moment and letting you do the rest. Ball didn’t want the show to seem like it was trying to “preach”, because in his own words, “I don’t feel like I know anything.” And thus is the honesty of the show. It doesn’t have the answers, it doesn’t even figure anything out really. It just makes you think, and it makes you understand, and empathize, and love.
I couldn’t help but love everyone on the show. The star-studded cast includes Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, and Frances Conroy, all of which give consistent, unforgettable performances. On top of that, the writing is some of the most insightful, moving work I’ve seen on a TV show. That being said, Six Feet Under didn’t seem to garner a cult following. When it was on air, it gained plenty of attention and it continued to gain viewers after its end, but in the last decade or so, it seems to have fallen off the map. HBO NOW still offers it in a list called “Essential Drama Series”, next to big names like Game of Thrones, Big Little Lies, and The Sopranos, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone talking about it. The only reason I ever found out about the show was because my mother remembered it from when it was on air and recommended it to me. So how did such a beautiful story get lost in the noise of time? Well, it certainly isn’t flashy. It’s dramatic at some points, but not most of the time. And yes, it does follow some dark themes. But if you’re willing to try, I think you’ll find Six Feet Under has something for everyone. Whether you need to feel less alone, or you want to fall in love with some new characters, or you just want to see what was on TV in 2001, I’m here to uncover a hidden beauty for you. Six Feet Under is worth the watch.