Sunday, November 16, 2008

Alan Ball, "Six Feet Under- Season 1"

There are certain consumer choices and behaviors that seem to mark individuals as members of the American mainstream. An almost unwholesome obsession with sports (mostly in a strictly voyeuristic sense) is one of them. Another is an addiction to cable television. Every once in awhile someone who I don't know very well will assume that I share these proclivities, and launch into a subject using names and terms that are unfamiliar to me. When this happens I have a few options. I can quickly change the subject to something I do know about. I can remain relatively silent and nod my head as if I understand completely. Or I can explain that I don't participate in these "activities" in any meaningful way.

Usually, if I respect the person I'm talking with, I'll opt for that last choice. I'm always prepared for a quick end to such a conversation. And it's often a relief to me when that expectation is realized. I find most of the programs (and sporting events) that the average media consumer prefers boring. I can't exactly trace the development of my attitude. When I was a kid, I watched all the popular shows. But at some undefined point in my early 20's, most of the stuff on television ceased to compel me to continue watching. It just didn't seem relevant to the things I was experiencing in my life. A lot of material that I would have once laughed at or been excited by seemed contrived. I suppose I lost some friends when this happened.

After awhile I discovered ways to find things that did resonate with my life. The internet came around at the ideal time, and access expanded to a point that I could identify films, books, and music that challenged and intrigued me. For years I built collections of items that I felt would be essential. Over time I had to cast my sights further afield to ferret out the gems. Through a strange and circuitous inverted path, I have recently found myself buying DVDs of television programs that I missed along the way. The latest series I've been exploring is the HBO production Six Feet Under. It was a quirky show broadcast between 2001 and 2005. Alan Ball, the writer of American Beauty, created the concept.

Six Feet Under garnered a lot of critical acclaim and many awards. Some have made the claim that it was one of the best dramas ever made for television. While I tend to avoid that type of superlative- after watching the first season I can recommend it as a quality show. It concerns a family that owns and operates a funeral parlor. Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy) is a middle-aged widow with three (mostly) adult children who all have a tendency to keep their inner lives repressed. The oldest (Nate, played by Peter Krause) has been brought back to his childhood home by the death of his father, after casting about in a Northwestern slacker existence for a decade-and-a-half. His reluctant reintegration is facilitated by a developing relationship with Brenda (played by Rachel Griffiths), a brilliant but troubled young woman raised under the close scrutiny of two eminent psychologists.

Middle child David (Michael C. Hall) is the presumptive head of the family business. He's inherited his tendency to be a control freak from his mother, and is struggling to come to terms with his repressed homosexuality. And then there is Claire (Lauren Ambrose), the baby of the family, who has her own adolescent difficulties dealing with being the high school "freak". All of the principles are competent (if not outstanding) actors, and their performances benefit from the quirky plot threads and dialog written into the show. Obviously death plays a large role as an organizing theme. There is ample dark humor included to temper the constant background of tragedy that permeates the narrative arc.

Perhaps the most admirable aspect of Six Feet Under is its unflinching willingness to confront controversial subject matter in an apparently honest way. There are certainly elements of magical realism threading through the episodes, but they never distract from the impression that the viewer is watching an essentially truthful depiction of an unusual American tableau. Ultimately that's what attracts me to the show- I find it insightful enough to keep watching, even when it hits the occasional awkward note. I don't know whether or not I'll make it through the full run, but what I've seen so far has justified its existence.

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Blogger matthew said...

I may not be the first to suggest this one to you, but... get "The Wire". I too had given up on television, but this show (that I just finished watching in its entirety) is just too thought provoking and emotionally gripping to pass up. Each of the five seasons expands and IMPROVES upon the previous.

4:40 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks for the recommendation. You're right- several people have told me to get "The Wire". I've got my eyes open for a deal on the set.

6:57 PM  

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