Closing the lid on `Six Feet Under'

Alan Ball's dark, daring story of the funereal Fishers ends its long run on HBO tonight


August 21, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

On the road and headed for death. On the road and headed for life. Like bookends, these seemingly contradictory visions of life sit on either end of the groundbreaking, five-season run of HBO's Six Feet Under, which airs its finale tonight.

The daring series created by Academy Award-winner Alan Ball began on June 3, 2001, with Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins), owner of Fisher & Sons Funeral Home, driving to Los Angeles International Airport to pick up his 35-year-old prodigal son, Nate (Peter Krause). Oblivious to his own mortality despite his occupation, Nathaniel was reaching for a cigarette while driving his extravagant, new "Millennium Edition" hearse when he was broad-sided by a city bus.

Tonight's final episode ends with the youngest Fisher, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), speeding through the desert's vast emptiness in a blue bullet of a car. Dazed by the sun's glare, Claire has a vision of death after death of Fisher family members - including her own. But her acute awareness of mortality only makes her feel more intensely alive as she speeds along, her mother's blessing ringing in her ears: "Go. Live. ... Find what life has in store for you."

Set in Los Angeles, Six Feet Under tells the story of a highly dysfunctional family living over a funeral home. After Nathaniel, the head of the family, is killed, elder son, Nate and his gay brother, David (Michael C. Hall), take over the family business. In the pilot, their younger sister, Claire, is smoking meth crystal, and their mother (Frances Conroy) is having an affair that started while her husband was alive.

(For those not familiar with the series: Think of the emptiness of family life as depicted by 1999 feature film American Beauty, which also was created by Ball. Then add surreal touches such as naked corpses rising from the embalming table to confront and castigate the living.)

As if life weren't dark enough in the house above Fisher & Sons, the death of the patriarch throws each family member into depression, panic and face-to-face confrontation with what existentialists might refer to as The Void.

Such awareness of death as prerequisite to an authentic life is at the heart of the artistic vision of Ball who wrote and directed both the first and last episodes. No prime-time television producer, with the exception of The Sopranos' David Chase, has offered as deep and dark a vision and then eloquently stuck to it.

In an interview on the eve of the series' debut, Ball spoke about the death of his teen-age sister in a car accident and the way in which that personal tragedy informed his series. Then 13, Ball was in the car with her when it happened; his sister was driving.

"When my sister died, my family just blew apart," he said. "My mom was hospitalized with a breakdown, my dad started drinking. I joined every club I could at school, so that I wouldn't have to be at home where it was ghosts. That's the family I know, and you know what they say: `Write what you know.' "

Despite television's historical aversion to honest depictions of death, Ball refused to sugarcoat the topic in Six Feet Under. "When my sister died, death stuck its face in mine, and said, `Uh, hello.' And I've been living with that ever since," he said.

"I confronted my mortality not just on a hypothetical level, but on a cellular level. While it was one of the worst things I ever went through, it profoundly enriched my life and it made me look at things differently - to have much less patience with the constant stream of distractions we're presented with."

Last week on Six Feet Under, Nate, who in the show's July 31 episode died of a hemorrhage in his brain, appeared to Claire when she visited his grave, passing on a bit of wisdom that has a similar ring. The things that matter in life, the dead man said, are "suffused" in a cosmic "static." His advice: "Stop listening to the static, Claire."

At the end of tonight's finale, Nate leads Claire to her new car and points her toward the highway and what seems a limitless future. When Claire stops to take a picture of family members posed on the steps of the funeral home, Nate interrupts: "You can't take a picture of this; it's already gone."

Perhaps Ball is sending a message to viewers who are starting to feel the pang of separation as this beloved series ends. Perhaps he wishes that through his art he could rewrite his own history.

"Go, you've got to go," he urges Claire. "You're talented, you're smart, you're ready. You'll be all right. ... You can't stay here."

By creating complex characters - as odd and deeply troubled as our most peculiar relatives - Ball re-imagined the American television family. In offering devastating spoofs of TV advertisements (for funeral-related products) as part of its narrative, the series skewered the hyper-commercialism of contemporary culture. And through the trajectory of David Fisher's life - particularly his loving relationship with Keith Charles (Mathew St. Patrick) - the drama offered one of the most multidimensional depictions of gay identity on TV.

Most of all, thanks to Ball's courage and skill as a storyteller, Six Feet Under offered prime-time television viewers an unblinking vision of death and perhaps a better understanding of life.


What: Finale of Six Feet Under

When: Tonight at 9

Where: HBO

In brief: A landmark series ends as brilliantly as it began in the hands of creator Alan Ball

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