Minority Report

Death Becomes Them

In a year defined by vapid, escapist “reality” shows and other slick,

cynical excursions into formula-driven TV, “Six Feet Under” has

distinguished itself by being both very good and very original.

Each show begins with death. A pyramid-schemer smashes his head at the

bottom of a pool; a gangster gets capped for using the wrong payphone; a

porno star is unwittingly electrocuted by her pussy (cat). These abrupt

finishes help establish the arbitrary nature of death, and the universality

of a fate we’re all destined to share. From this point, our focus turns from

the dead to the living, as the deceased’s journey from earth to sub-earth

becomes the backdrop for much deliciously dysfunctional comedy.

The show’s primary location is the Fisher and Sons funeral home, now

controlled by the family’s third generation: sons Nate (Peter Krause) and

David (Michael C. Hall) inherited the business from father Nathaniel

(Richard Jenkins), who died on Christmas Eve. As might be expected, the

brothers are different: Nate is outgoing, laid-back, hyper-erotic, whereas

David is restrained, uptight and still coming to terms with his

homosexuality. David has learned the business at his father’s hand since

childhood, whereas Nate bolted early for some idyllic Seattle

splendor–which leads to early tension when father bequeaths the business in

equal proportion, and neither son can decide who’s supposed to be getting

punished by that arrangement. The kick, of course, is that being forced to

live and work together presents opportunities for bonding previously

unavailable.

The show has five primary characters whose concerns connect, in eerily

seamless fashion, in the scripts written by Oscar-winner Alan Ball

(“American Beauty”). The family matriarch (Frances Conroy) is a moving

picture of life after death: her near-obsessive household ministrations are

laced with moments of “weird” behavior that hint at the psychic turmoil

lurking beneath. But “psychic turmoil” is a phrase easily applicable to any

of these characters. Take daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose), who is almost

necessarily sardonic, all the time. She always leaves the room when she

becomes the subject, which suggests some discomfort with her basic

reality–although discomfort in funeral homes is probably normal–however

much she obscures her pain with sarcasm. (Watching her try to seduce a

hispanic gangster at his boy’s service is like having straight-pins pressed

into your trapezius muscles.)

Rachel Griffiths (who better have an Emmy by this time next year) plays

Nate’s girlfriend Brenda, a one-night-stand that is quickly evolving into

the country’s most interesting on-screen couple. (Other than Steve Austin

and Vince McMahon, that is!) She’s “scarily brilliant,” sez her beau, with

an IQ of 186 and lines to match. This show thrives on its dialogue. Ball

balances so many disparate elements at once that one wonders how he keeps up

with himself. Maybe it’s reefer, if the steady, nonchalant consumption of

pot is any indication.

Wisdom wafts through the episodes like exhalation in fluorescent light.

David converses with the dead as he embalms them, and Nate talks with the

father he never got to know; these transmissions from the other side (which

are never explained away as merely hallucinatory or dreamlike, leaving open

the door to genuine supernaturality) help the brothers make sense of their

own problems and gets them over as empathetic, not desensitized. Their one

employee is “reconstruction artist” Federico (Freddy Rodriguez), whose pride

in his work seems weird at first, given its morbid nature, but often

validates itself through restoring dignity to those who’ve expired in

particularly gruesome fashion. David’s boyfriend–an LAPD beat cop–bucks

traditional notions of gayness in modern America; affixing a supposed

weakness to such an overtly powerful figure helps underscore how superficial

our delusions of “great perception” really are. And Brenda’s bon mots,

emanating as they do from a woman born to dual-psychiatrist parents, always

seems to fit.

In the end, “Six Feet Under” has much less to do with death than with life,

with the need to find happiness now, because each day that passes without a

firm devotion to yourself and your needs is a day you’ll wish you had–if

you even have time to wish at all–when the End comes.


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