It’s already gone: revisiting Six Feet Under

Around the time that my father received his cancer diagnosis in 2021, I started rewatching HBO’s Six Feet Under, a five-season series about the lives of the Fisher family who run a funeral home in Los Angeles. I’d watched the entire series before, twice, the last time finishing in 2008. At the time, I wasn’t married yet (though I was already living with my now-wife), and my parents were both still alive, as were my partner’s. My mother was the first of our parents who died, in 2009. On this day a year ago, my dad died, not of the cancer he’d been diagnosed with but of complications in connection with the illness or the treatment or perhaps simply his age, and this morning I watched “Everyone’s Waiting”, Six Feet Under‘s final episode.

Six Feet Under tends to get a mention in discussions of the Golden Age of Television and of HBO’s contributions to what the medium produced during this period, though it rarely gets the same kind of accolades as, say, The Sopranos, Deadwood or The Wire. “Everyone’s Waiting” is regularly mentioned as one of the best series finales ever, alongside M*A*S*H‘s “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”. While I would have said at the time already that some of these other series might be better, none of them had the impact on me when I first watched them that Six Feet Under had. Its central themes of family, death and grief resonated with me, as did the Fishers, whose members – mother Ruth (Frances Conroy), the two sons Nate (Peter Krause) and David (Michael C. Hall), and the youngest, Claire (Lauren Ambrose) – were all dysfunctional in ways I frequently found familiar. The Fishers cared for one another, but most of the time they didn’t know how to express this or how to reconcile it with their own resentments and neuroses. They all got in their own way, they were their own worst enemies, and the other people in their lives often got to experience these dysfunctions up close. Not that these others were much better: abrasive, self-destructive Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) and her rollercoaster of a relationship with Nate, David’s boyfriend Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) and his anger issues, Ruth’s various boyfriends and lovers over the years. My own life wasn’t as melodramatic as the Fishers’ lives could get, but I recognised the family dynamics and the struggles each of them had with their own emotions and with finding out who they even wished to be, as lovers, siblings, as parents, daughters and sons.

It is something of a truism that works of art, and stories in general, hit you very differently based on what age you are and where you are in your own life. When I originally watched Six Feet Under, I was older than Claire, the rebellious, creative (and, yes, pretentious) teen daughter, and I was no Nate nor David, but the gestalt of the Fishers still made them feel like kindred spirits, and especially Nate’s urge to get people to understand and acknowledge that death wasn’t a dirty secret, something to hide away and remain silent about, was familiar. Now, fifteen years after my last stay with the Fishers, I am closer in age to baby boomers Nathaniel Sr and Ruth, but my life is very different to theirs: I have no children, no funeral home, no secret room above an Indian restaurant where I come to get drunk and stoned and quite possibly laid, as Nate Sr did. But death is on my mind more, and more immediately, than it was those fifteen, twenty years ago when I watched the series for the first and second time. The death of my parents, my parents-in-law, the sense that one generation is gone, we’re next, and there’s no generation to follow us. In that sense, I feel less of a kinship with the Fishers at the age of 48, but I feel that death, the big, constant, literal presence in their home, is something much more real and concrete than it was when I was in my thirties.

In “Everyone’s Waiting”, there is a scene where Claire, about to embark on a life far from home and from the people that she’s always felt an ambivalent, hard-to-handle love for, takes a farewell photo of her family. In typical Six Feet Under fashion, her late brother Nate stands behind her, commenting on what she’s doing. “You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone.” (She takes the picture anyway.) My original experience with Six Feet Under was intense. It was perhaps the series that left most of an imprint on me at the time. Saying goodbye to these characters felt like actual loss to me – also because I sensed that the series had prefigured future losses I’d suffer. But while that imprint is still there, the immediate experience is already gone. While still being enormously fond of Six Feet Under, I no longer felt bowled over by it. Some of it felt facile, some felt played up for melodrama, and much of the humour especially felt glib and smug and actually a bit dumb. Some of Six Feet Under‘s sensitivities struck me as oddly adolescent – which fits the way in which the Fishers are all stuck in arrested development to some extent and only progress beyond this in fits and starts. What struck me even more, though, was how uncharitable the series was at times: I remembered Six Feet Under as being much more, and more consistently, empathetic. That’s certainly still there, but likewise are there more scenes than expected where it’s clear that the Fishers and those closest to them are real people, but others can be two- or even one-dimensional and only have as much of a character as is needed to make a certain point (or, worse, land a certain joke) – though some of the recurring characters push by their own flatness by pure force of personality – I’m thinking especially of Brenda’s mother Margaret (Joanna Cassidy) or Ruth’s artist sister Sarah (Patricia Clarkson).

Back when I first watched Six Feet Under, I would probably annoy people by proselytising about it. I don’t think I’d still do so to the same extent. When the series was originally released, from 2001 to 2005, it was fresh and original in ways that it probably isn’t any more. The whole concept of ‘prestige TV’ is often overplayed, and some television seems intent mainly on the appearance (and price tag) of prestige, but since 2000 the kind of stories that TV tells, the characters it can feature, and the range of styles it can embrace, have become much more varied and ambitious. Something like The Leftovers owes a debt to Six Feet Under in terms of its themes and how far it can go to pursue these themes. It stands on the earlier series’ shoulders – and, at least to my mind, goes further in some respects. (Mind you, I’d hesitate to proselytise The Leftovers to the same extent for certain reasons, not least the sheer fucking grimness of its first season.)

There’s also another aspect: watching Six Feet Under in 2023 brings home to me just how apolitical the series is. Okay, that’s not entirely accurate: the series’ characters aren’t apolitical, and especially Nate and Claire make their political leanings very clear in ways that are typical of post-9/11 US drama. But politics is largely something that happens elsewhere in Fisherland. And, it needs to be said, the Fishers are very white and middle-class and their lives and concerns are likewise. There are a handful of non-white characters, but the writing of the series shows little concrete interest in exploring them and their lives beyond what is relevant to the Fishers. The problems of the family are largely private ones, and financially they are comfortable enough to afford private problems. I’m finding it difficult looking back to gauge how daring and political the series’ focus on David and his homosexuality was at the time (and for that particular culture), but in 2023 the series’ treatment of themes of sexuality seems almost quaint.

All of this sounds harsher than it is, though. My love for Six Feet Under isn’t as unconditional as it was when I first watched the series, but when it hits, it still hits hard. Its treatment of grief and loss in a society that tries to domesticate death still works. The series has always recognised the schizophrenic truth that death is normal, and in spite of this losing someone is traumatic, even (or perhaps especially) if your relationship with that person was ambivalent. Death may be as natural as birth, but losing a person nonetheless feels utterly unreal. That experience when someone who was there a moment before, who’d perhaps been there since before you were born, is suddenly gone is incomprehensible. At its best, Six Feet Under spoke to this experience truthfully and with sensitivity.

I don’t know if I will ever rewatch Six Feet Under. Growing older, I’m getting to accept that when it comes to the stories we let into our lives, the inescapable truth is that of the Backlog Singularity: it is good that we don’t know the moment when we’ve collected more books, films, albums, video games and series than we will be able to experience in the time we still have, because I suspect I’ve long since passed that point. But, like all good stories that we experience, Six Feet Under is a part of me. It has helped shape my beliefs about death and loss. For that, I will gladly forgive it for not being quite as good on a rewatch as it was the first and second time around. (Yes, I will even forgive gay paintball comedy.) Perhaps we can’t take a picture because whatever we were just looking at a moment ago is already gone, but that’s why we take pictures, real or metaphorical: to hold on to what we know can’t be held on to. If we accepted that everything and everyone must end without a struggle, we might just as well place ourselves in that hole six feet deep.

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