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An Appreciation of ‘Six Feet Under’ on the Eighth Anniversary of Its Death

Six Feet Under left us eight years ago today, on August 21, 2005. Perhaps that’s a minor anniversary for some, but I am a member of the cult, small in number and quiet in voice though we are. I still rewatch the entire series every year or so. Call it the point of a too-rabid fan, but I feel we can all agree that people are too quick to neglect Six Feet Under’s role in the development of prestige cable. The Sopranos and Mad Men are endlessly analyzed, the subject of endless books and blog posts, but no one writes long nostalgia posts about Six Feet Under. Except for me.

That’s never made sense in my world. Of all the shows I’ve watched religiously, only Six Feet Under bore the aftereffects of gospel for me. It’s the only show I still think of as having wisdom to impart about my life. Hyperbole, perhaps, and I am certainly not a fundamentalist — Six Feet Under has many flaws. But the Holy-Book metaphor still fits well on a show that was so directly engaged with questions of mortality. Most shows dance around it — David Chase’s famous cut-to-black ending for The Sopranos essentially thumbed his nose at the whole business — partly because they worry about falling prey to exactly what Six Feet Under is often criticized for: maudlin sentimentality. Six Feet Under barrelled head-on into that risk.

But if you could overcome your initial sense of ick at all the emotion, Six Feet Under was pretty adept at staying on the right side of the melodrama line, and particularly so, I think, when it came to its women. It’s not that its portrait of confused masculinity (Nate) and gay monogamy (Keith and David) weren’t equally worthwhile, but it strikes me that most of the major Six Feet Under fans I know are women. (N.B. Men: I’d love to be proved wrong on this.) And women on Six Feet Under aren’t like other women on television melodramas, which is to say they act and think and feel like recognizable human beings. They aren’t stylized in the least. And I have spent the rest of my life living through what I think of as the Six Feet Under stages of development.

Your average Six Feet Under fan starts out relating strongly to Lauren Ambrose’s Claire Fisher. Claire had that kind of wonderful intelligent-deadpan sense of humor — “Mom, apparently you want a child with an eating disorder” — which can only come from a team of screenwriters, but it’s not like she was perfect. Like a hell of a lot of people, she spent her 20s trying to be an artist and was never quite sure that she was talented enough for it. Plus, she ended up dating a hell of a lot of terrible boyfriends along the way, some of them also artists, though also some just garden-variety jerks. In other words, Claire had all the virtues of Hannah Horvath — and a fair dose of intelligence and actual interest in art on top of them. She talked about the trouble she had “breaking her eye open”; she openly feuded with Russell over which of them had come up with her career-starting collage photography technique. Claire Fisher forever, you guys. Particularly when she finally realized for herself that Brenda’s brother, Billy Chenoweth (Jeremy Sisto), was not worth the mess.

Then comes the Lisa Kimmel Fisher phase. Lisa, played by Lili Taylor, was not particularly popular with fans as the show was airing — Virginia Heffernan, at the time, went so far as to term her a “villain.” Her oops-I’m-pregnant routine pushed several cultural buttons about “predatory” women, and her perpetual commitment to veganism gave her a daffy quality that seemed to annoy a fair number of fans. But when I watch the show now, from this side of 30, I feel nothing but sympathy for her difficult, passive-aggressive self, and the torch she carried for Nate. He wasn’t worthy of such long dedication, which of course he promptly proved when he gave into her pressure and married her. The scene (whose details I’ll remain silent on for those who have not yet watched, but yes I know) where she tells him, “Nate, I’m not a chance. I’m a person,” kind of haunts me still.

These days my own headspace is closest to Brenda Chenowith’s, which makes her a little hard to write about. Rachel Griffiths’ Brenda, like Lisa, is a “difficult” woman. It always spoke well of Nate, I thought, that he seemed to be attracted to women who really put him through his paces, which Brenda certainly did. First there were her experiments in Buddhism, which turned out, as many experiments in Buddhism do, to be complete bullshit. (I maintain that my own experiments in Buddhism are still completely genuine, for the record.) Then there was her total ambivalence about monogamy. She was so shrewd in seeing just what monogamy might solve in her seriously screwed-up psyche, which is to say that it would solve nothing. And then so completely, relatably human in the way that she wielded that observation. It’s been love for Brenda and me ever since she sighed, “I can’t believe how much money I’ve spent fucking up my life.”

And then there’s the mother, Ruth (Frances Conroy), a study in the beautiful but also ambivalent experience of defining yourself as a wife and mother. When Six Feet Under was in its first season I once spent an hour with a classmate just marvelling over this “crazy” woman on television. We were specifically shocked, to be clear, at how much we loved her. From outbursts like, “All I want is for us not to be strangers. I want some intimacy. Give me intimacy! Won’t any of you have intimacy with me?!” to her dreadful widow-dating choices, there was something about Ruth’s lack of equipment that was so true. Characters on television are typically articulate and have some presumed emotional self-awareness. But Ruth was neither in control of her feelings, nor was she able to explain them except in the bluntest terms imaginable.

There were other examples of femininity in the supporting cast, too: Justina Machado’s Vanessa Diaz presented the other side of Ruth’s archetype, the woman in control of her marriage and her home up to the moment that life got to her, and things swiftly unraveled. Patricia Clarkson’s Sarah was the failed artist we all hope we won’t be if we don’t take Ruth’s safe path, though we’d certainly take Sarah’s beautiful Laurel Canyon house as a consolation prize. Kathy Bates’ Bettina is still often my favorite, egging Ruth on to loosen up just a bit. All of those are stages I haven’t reached yet, but I am glad to have known these characters, if only so that when I get there, I’ll still have something to hold onto.

Sure, the writers led the show down some pretty convoluted garden paths at times. Plot suffers when there’s pressure to constantly bring the story up against big questions about life and love and death. The degree of mortal peril and spectacular breakups on the show tended to defy plausibility. No one life contains all those travails.

But all the exquisite acting and writing that happened around the slightly implausible plot twists more than rescued it from the maudlin. The show became, instead, something of a handy guide to how much you will completely screw up your life, and how that is 100% possible to survive. I’ve often suspected that rather than problems of craft, one reason that Six Feet Under is relatively under-discussed is exactly that: a show of big, uncomfortable emotions will naturally give rise to, well, uncomfortable emotions. But in Six Feet Under, as anywhere else, getting through the less-than-pleasant stuff means that eventually it will teach you something. And then you’re left with the truth of the cliché: that learning is never a waste of time.