People die in TV and movies all the time, but understandably, drama seldom dwells on the actual moment. Perhaps that’s why Showtime describes “Time of Death” as a “brave new documentary series,” focusing as it does on end-of-life matters, in a format sure to yield lumps in the throat and inspire reflection about fragile mortality, but which as realized doesn’t fully deliver on its promise. Part of that shortcoming relates to the structure, which deals with one story unfolding across all six hours, with a self-contained “B” player in each. Ultimately, the series is worth a look if not necessarily worthy of the whole journey, as “Death” doesn’t completely become Showtime.
Maria Lencioni, 48, provides the spine of the entire exercise. She’s dying of cancer, and worried about her three kids: Little, her 25-year-old daughter; and two teenage half-siblings. Maria’s plan is to leave both younger children under Little’s guardianship, but there are complications throughout, many of them magnified by Maria’s declining health, with the camera charting her steady loss of vitality.
Yet while Maria’s situation is probably the soapiest of those featured, in many ways it’s also the least interesting. In that regard, producer Magical Elves (better known for frothier fare, like “Project Runway”) has achieved a somewhat hit-and-miss bit of casting, although the totality of the project does create perspective on the various ways relatives and the dying cope with a fatal diagnosis.
Told in spare fashion — a bit like ABC News’ “24/7” series — the program, beyond Maria, consists of people ranging in age from 77 to 19, most afflicted with some form of cancer. Of those, two in particular stand out: Cheyenne Bertiloni (pictured), a 47-year-old man debilitated by ALS to the point of needing a computer-generated voice to communicate; and Nicholle Kissee, a 19-year-old girl with Stage IV melanoma. Shown in the final hour, the latter is perhaps the most emotionally devastating, watching Nicholle’s parents and entire family gather around her to witness her slip away as she labors to breathe.
Notably, even with the extraordinary access producers were granted, some of the participants draw the line at allowing filming of a dying person’s last moments. In addition, Maria’s younger daughter at one point turns to the camera and says, “I really don’t want to be filmed while I’m doing this” as she goes through her mothers belongings, belying the frequent argument documentary subjects forget about the camera’s presence.
In many respects, “Time of Death” couldn’t be more timely — including the overheated discussion of government “death panels” in the context of Obamacare — or universal. Nevertheless, one suspects few will want to sign up for what frequently feels like a grueling experience, despite the life-affirming qualities in seeing people come to grips with their own death and loved ones find the strength to muddle on.
“We live in a death-denying culture,” says Lenore Lefer, a 75-year-old psychotherapist dying of pancreatic cancer, identifying the impulse to look away.
By being conceptually provocative, “Time of Death” fulfills a fundamental mandate of pay cable, which has the luxury and latitude to occasionally greenlight programs that are more talked about than watched. That’s the likely outcome for this six-hour series that, by reminding us how short and fleeting life can be, inevitably makes you wonder, to crib from an old Pat Benatar tune, what more you could be doing with all that precious time.