×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ‘Six Feet Under’

'Six Feet Under' represents the follow-up to creator Alan Ball's superb Oscar-winning screenplay 'American Beauty.' 'Six Feet Under' is a smart, brooding, fanciful character-driven ensemble piece about a family in the funeral biz. The Fisher clan, proprietors of a Los Angeles mortuary, wears mortality the way a fisherman wears the smell of the daily catch -- it never quite washes off.

With:
Nate Fisher - Peter Krause David Fisher - Michael C. Hall Ruth Fisher - Frances Conroy Claire Fisher - Lauren Ambrose Federico - Freddy Rodriguez Keith Charles - Mathew St. Patrick Brenda - Rachel Griffiths Nathaniel Fisher - Richard Jenkins

Six Feet Under” represents the follow-up to HBO’s superb drama series “The Sopranos,” and to creator Alan Ball’s superb Oscar-winning screenplay “American Beauty,” two projects that are dark, funny, unpredictable, even soulful. The same can be said of “Six Feet Under,” a smart, brooding, fanciful character-driven ensemble piece about a family in the funeral biz. The show ambitiously takes on death as its primary subject, providing a mix of the blackest of black comedy with deep psychological drama. In this hourlong series, death doesn’t lurk around corners; instead it sits down silently for dinner, like a family friend nobody really likes but nobody dares offend. The Fisher clan, proprietors of a Los Angeles mortuary, wears mortality the way a fisherman wears the smell of the daily catch — it never quite washes off.

Each episode begins with the demise of a guest star, whose embalming, funeral and burial become the responsibility of the Fisher & Sons mortuary. Ball launches his series by bringing death home in the most personal way possible: Fisher family patriarch Nathaniel, played by Richard Jenkins, is driving the family hearse to the airport on Christmas Eve to pick up his oldest son, Nate (Peter Krause), when he gets hit by a bus with full force.

Free-spirited, handsome Nate is in an airport storage closet having sex with a woman he met on the plane when he gets the news. Always terrified of death, he’d escaped the funeral home as soon as he could, moving to Seattle as a teenager, where he now works at an organic food co-op. His younger brother, David (Michael C. Hall), stayed and became their father’s responsible partner, taking on the pale, morose look and humorless manner of a mortician par excellence.

Frances Conroy plays Ruth, Nathaniel’s now-widow, like a frayed nerve ending — we’re never quite sure how oblivious she really is to her family’s fundamental dysfunction. In the pilot episode, we’re quite certain of her teenage daughter Claire’s obliviousness, since just before hearing of her father’s demise she’d inhaled some crystal meth pushed on her by a guy she’s got the hots for.

Obviously, Nathaniel’s death is completely different than any other, and yet David and Ruth try to go through the motions like they would for anyone else, which just makes it creepier. Nathaniel appears to each member of the family throughout the episode (and occasionally in future ones as well), not so much a ghost as an emotional presence. Other clients do so also in the ongoing episodes — the fresh corpses come alive to talk to David, always offering a meaningful, although often cryptic, lesson. Sometimes this is intended to be taken seriously, sometimes not — the most memorable one is a former porn star whose enormous, stiffened breasts lay exposed throughout much of the hour.

Yes, this show about death can be very funny. George Bernard Shaw once noted that “Life doesn’t cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” Indeed, Ball’s very effective way with black comedy is on full display. The pilot episode is interspersed with glossy mock commercials for funeral products, like embalming fluid — commercialism and corporate competition in the “death care industry” play a continuing role.

The Fishers’ one nonfamily employee, Federico (Freddy Rodriguez), is the “restorative artist” who brags a bit too proudly about his ability to make damaged corpses attractive.

In an early episode, Claire, who drives the family’s old hearse, painted green, steals a foot from a particularly mauled client and takes it to school. This tips the family off that she may need a little help, although she’s certainly not any more lost than the rest of her family.

The comedy can be broad but is always grounded in the reality of the characters, and while it’s peppered with irony and wit, the show is far less a comedy than a yearning drama, likely to have more female appeal than HBO’s hit mob series.

If “The Sopranos” is an explosive show, brimming with layers of deception and betrayal, “Six Feet Under” is an implosive one, built upon a foundation of repression. David, for example, hides his homosexuality, and his boyfriend, an African-American policeman named Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), chafes under David’s perpetual unwillingness to be open about their relationship. Nate and David barely speak, except about business, and when Ruth makes a determined effort to become closer with Claire, the teenager at first just ridicules the very idea of mother-daughter closeness. As in “American Beauty,” Ball’s view of family dynamics comes off as complex and nearly indecipherable — these folks are strangers.

The other major player here is Nate’s girlfriend, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). After their anonymous sex in the airport, they become quite the item. Brenda’s family — her parents are psychologists — make the Fishers look like the Nelsons. Griffiths stands out among this very fine cast, presenting this screwed-up genius as a kind of morbid optimist.

The show has plenty of polish, from Thomas Newman’s evocative theme music to Alan Caso’s elegant photography. Overall, this is a singular effort.

TV Review: 'Six Feet Under'

Series; HBO, Sun. June 3, 9 p.m.

Production: Filmed at Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood by Actual Size Prods. and the Greenblatt-Janollari Studio. Executive producers, Alan Ball, Robert Greenblatt, David Janollari; co-executive producer, Alan Poul; producer, Christian Taylor; co-producer, Lori Jo Nemhauser; director-writer-creator, Ball.

Crew: Camera, Alan Caso; production design, Marcia Hinds-Johnson; editor, Christopher Nelson; score, Richard Marvin; main title theme, Thomas Newman; casting, Junie Lowry Johnson, Libby Goldstein. 60 MIN.

Cast: Nate Fisher - Peter Krause David Fisher - Michael C. Hall Ruth Fisher - Frances Conroy Claire Fisher - Lauren Ambrose Federico - Freddy Rodriguez Keith Charles - Mathew St. Patrick Brenda - Rachel Griffiths Nathaniel Fisher - Richard Jenkins

More TV

  • NEW YORK, NY – JUNE, 24:

    LGBTQ Stars Honored at Variety’s Power of Pride Celebration

    New York City felt the full power of pride on Monday, as Variety celebrated its inaugural issue devoted to the annual recognition of LGBTQ people worldwide. At an intimate gathering at lower east side Manhattan hotel The Orchid, rooftop bar Mr. Purple hosted Variety’s cover stars and luminaries for cocktails and the unveiling of the [...]

  • WWE

    WWE and PP Sports Extend China Partnership

    WWE and PP Sports have signed a new multi-year agreement that will keep WWE programming airing live in Mandarin in China. In the past three years of the partnership, PP Sports has delivered more than 300 episodes of WWE programming. PP Sports will offer, “Raw,” “Smackdown, and the WWE Network as a subscription VOD service [...]

  • Billy Eichner Power of Pride Variety

    Billy Eichner on Taylor Swift's 'Calm Down' Backlash

    When Taylor Swift released her “You Need to Calm Down” music video, it seemed like every member of the LGBTQ in Hollywood was included — except for Billy Eichner. “I’m still not gay enough for Taylor Swift — or too gay — I don’t know what it is,” Eichner joked at Variety’s Power of Pride [...]

  • HIGHWIRE LIVE IN TIMES SQUARE WITH

    TV News Roundup: 'Highwire Live in Times Square' Tops Sunday Night Ratings

    In today’s TV news roundup, ABC’s “Highwire Live in Times Square” tops Sunday night ratings, and “Total Bellas” has been renewed for a fifth season. DATES FX will air the special event “Peabody Presents: Stories of the Year” on July 7. The program will showcase the issues honored at the 78th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'Scream' Series Moves From MTV to VH1 for July Debut

    The long-gestating third season of the “Scream” series is finally debuting–but not on its original network. Variety has confirmed that the series will air on VH1 instead of MTV as originally planned. “Scream” will debut on VH1 on July 8 and air two one-hour episodes back-to-back for three straight nights. The third season of the [...]

  • Jussie Smollett

    Video of Jussie Smollett With Rope Around His Neck Released by Chicago Police

    The Chicago Police Department released new surveillance footage and files in regards to the Jussie Smollett hoax case on Monday, including one that shows the “Empire” actor shortly after the alleged attack. In one of the videos, police body-cam footage shows authorities entering Smollett’s Chicago apartment, led by his manager, Frank Gatson. Smollett is found [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content