Television Review: Six Feet Under
by Jim Van Nest
Published: July 30, 2001
Move over Tony Soprano. You've been whacked! President Bartlett? Your term has expired. HBO's Six Feet Under is the new "best show on television." I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "That's a pretty bold statement for a show that's only 9 episodes into its first season." You'd be correct. However, I will stand by my statement.
Academy Award winning writer Alan Ball (American Beauty) has taken dysfunction to a whole new level with HBO's new hour-long drama, Six Feet Under. In SFU, we're introduced to the Fisher family, owners/operators of Fisher & Sons Funeral Home in Los Angeles, California. While appearing as normal as any American family, the Fishers are a wonderfully complex, weird group of people. Nathaniel and Ruth Fisher, played masterfully by Richard Jenkins and Frances Conroy, have raised their 3 children, Nate, David and Claire, in the family-run funeral home. If that's not a recipe for therapy, I don't know what is.
What's incredible about this show is that after every episode, I seem to have a new favorite character. I think this is a testament to the writing as well as the acting. Each character is interesting enough to have their own show. When you throw all of them together, the only bad thing about the show is that it has to end. Every week, when the credits roll, I'm angry that there's not just a few more minutes to the episode. To me, that's the mark of a great show. Since the characters are what drive the show, some background on each one would be called for.
Nathaniel Fisher (Jenkins) - You don't really get to know Nathaniel while he's alive. You see he dies at the very beginning of the first episode. In fact, you really don't get to know him at all. He does show up in several episodes to play devil's advocate to sons Nate and David. You pick up bits and pieces on his character as the show goes, though I suspect no one really knows a whole lot about him.
Ruth Fisher (Conroy) - While I don't know for sure, I suspect there's a lot more to Mama Fisher than meets the eye. She comes across as a kind of flaky, spacey woman. But, I think she is much more in control than they are letting on right now. She is distraught over her husband's death. Most of that distress comes from her guilt of having an affair while Nathaniel was still alive. As the show progresses, she seems to get stronger. My fondness for the character does as well.
Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) - Nate seems to be the most "normal" of the Fishers, if there is such a thing. As soon as he could, he left the funeral home for Seattle where he could pursue his own life rather than taking over the family business. He happens to be in town for a visit when his father is killed. The guilt and loyalty he feels to his family keeps him in town where he now co-manages Fisher and Sons.
David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) - David is "the good son." He's the one who stayed around and helped run Fisher and Sons. He's incredibly anal and quite confused. He's gay, yet still "in the closet" to the rest of the Fishers. He's thrown a heaping pile of guilt on Nate. But you have to wonder if he's pissed cause Nate left or pissed because he didn't have the guts to leave.
Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) - An outcast at school, Claire is definitely going through some growing pains. She's experimenting with drugs and sex, yet can't seem to find what she's looking for. She's very witty and strikes me as the type that would have a ton of friends, if she could somehow be a little more outgoing. Unlike David, it's obvious that she's pissed at Nate for leaving.
Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths) - Okay, here's where the cast gets REALLY interesting. The daughter of two psychologists, Brenda is, by far, the most interesting character on the show right now. Nate met Brenda on his flight home from Seattle. To put it lightly, they hit it off real well and have decided to give a relationship a try. Unfortunately, Brenda's outrageous past keeps coming between them. From a book about her life to the tendency for naked men to be in her apartment, you just never know where Brenda is coming from.
Billy Chenowith (Jeremy Sisto) - Brenda's brother is quite an interesting fellow. When he's ON his medication, you'd think he's certifiable. When he's OFF his meds, watch out! We don't really know too much about Billy, other than he's very protective of his sister, Brenda. In fact, he's so protective of her and people getting close to her, that you have to wonder exactly how close this brother and sister tandem is.
Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez) - Thrown in this mix of craziness is 'Rico. 'Rico is employed as a restoration artist at Fisher and Sons. He's married and his wife is pregnant. Other than the fact that his job has him reconstructing dead people, he's the only "normal" person on the show. Also, he's apparently one of the best at his job. Good enough, in fact, that the local super-chain of funeral homes is courting his services. He's loyal to the Fishers, but how long can that loyalty last.
Not only are the characters very interesting, but the dialogue between them is extraordinary. You try your best not to make any noise that would cause you to miss a single word. My favorite aspect of the show is the way the writers use the dead people at the funeral home, including Nathaniel Fisher, to let you know what our main characters are thinking. Basically, every show starts off with a death. These people are very near-future Fisher & Sons clients. In many episodes, the writers use interaction between the dead person and one of the Fishers, usually Nate or David, to put into words the inner conflict of these men. In any other show, the only way to truly show what a character is thinking is to have them make some goofy looking pose, while a voice-over recites their "thoughts." Not anymore. In many episodes, Nate's thoughts take shape in the form of his father. What we see is Nate arguing with Nathaniel. But what we're really seeing is Nate going back and forth over a situation that he is facing. There's no other word for this but brilliant. It allows this show to go places that, until now, were pretty tough to go.
This review wouldn't be complete without at least touching on the whirlwind that is the Nate and Brenda romance. Coupled with that is the increasingly weird relationship between Brenda and her brother Billy. When Nate and Billy are in the same room together you can actually feel the tension. There's something going on there, I'm just not sure what yet. Hopefully in the near future, we'll find out exactly what is up with Brenda and Billy. Until then, I'm counting down the days until the next episode. I haven't been this stoked about a television show in a long, long time.
If you haven't had a chance to see the show yet, you must get to the HBO website and see when they'll start re-airing older episodes. You must get in on the ground floor. If you don't have HBO, I think now is the time for you to be calling your local cable or satellite operator and getting the hook-up. This is a show that is not to be missed. I guarantee you'll thank me for it!
Six Feet Under airs on Home Box Office on Sundays at 9:30 pm EST, with replays on Tuesdays at 11 pm EST and Wednesdays at 9:00 pm EST. Due to some scenes involving drug usage, sexual situations, adult language and nudity, I would not recommend this show for anyone under the age of 18.