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Reading Six Feet Under: TV to Die for (Reading Contemporary Television) Paperback – May 12, 2005
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'This is the essential appeal of the book - it manages to combine the serious with the comic and ironic, just as its subject series does.' - Media Education Journal
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Top Customer Reviews
If you're a fan of SFU or just someone who likes to watch television thoughtfully, you'll find this volume helpful. These are not newspaper style reviews; most are essays by academics focusing on one character or aspect of the show. There is academic jargon here to be sure (in some essays more than others), but I found I could navigate it fairly easily with a dictionary at my elbow (though I had to Google "diegesis" to understand Peter Kaye's article on the music of SFU). Special attention was given to gender issues. Part III is entitled "Post-Patriarchal Dilemmas: Making Visible the Female Subject" and contains essays on Ruth Fisher (the mother whose unexpected and premature widowhood launches season 1), Claire (her only daughter), and Brenda (a complicated outsider who becomes increasingly involved with the family over the course of the series). I found Erin's MacLeod's "Desperately Seeking Brenda: Writing the Self in Six Feet Under" especially engaging--in part, because I found this character more baffling and frustrating than any other in the show. As with many of the essays in this volume, I suspect MacLeod wrote her essay at some point during season 3 or 4, but certainly well before Brenda's full trajectory was known. She seemed to have missed the opportunity to comment on Brenda's personal post-patriarchal experience (the death of her own father, Bernard Chenowith). I think the volume would have been greatly enhanced if contributors were given an opportunity to attach Afterwords to their essays based on having seen the entire series, including the amazing final episode in which viewers are shown exactly how each of the main characters faces her/his own death.
Gender is also the key theme in "Part IV: Post-Patriarchal Dilemmas: Masculinities Reconsidered," with Queer Theory playing an important role in Brian Singleton's "Queering the Church," which focuses on the way David Fisher deals with his homosexuality, and Samuel A. Chambers's "Revisiting the Closet," which focuses on the experiences Russell Corwin, an art school classmate of Claire's, a relatively minor character in the series. Again, it would have been interesting to know what these authors thought upon seeing the last episode of season 5.
My favorite essay in the whole volume, however, was "Playing in the Deep End of the Pool" by Thomas Lynch, who is a funeral director (from a family of funeral directors) in addition to being a skilled writer. Besides providing useful insights into SFU's portrayal of his profession, he gives the first critical perspective I've read on Jessica Mitford's classic 1963 expose of the death care industry, THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH, that makes sense without seeming defensive.
The book includes an Episode Guide (through the end of season 4); a Film and TV Guide (baffling for what it includes--The King and I?--as well as for what it omits--where are Rachel, Rachel; Four Weddings and a Funeral; Longtime Companion; The Passion of the Christ, to name a few?); a Bibliography that doesn't include every work sited by the authors; and an Index.
While there are many films that may merit criticism and further reading, I would be hard-pressed to name a handful of television shows worth examining. What makes the series so fascinating and alluring is not only its near cinematic approach to capturing the daily lives of funeral directors in southern California, but its ability to go beyond television and go beyond film to discuss topics routinely ignored in mainstream movie theatres and on network television. Reading Six Feet Under: TV to Die For provides the commentary those of us who love the many intellectual/psychological/philosophical/spiritual layers the series possesses.
From the first few essays, we begin to understand why Six Feet Under went beyond other series - death, as Mark Lawson writes in the foreword, is the last taboo. The dead body is on the table in the show, the momento mori is there in front of us. Watching each episode we are in the threshold space (or liminal as Rob Turnock describes it in his essay, 'Death, liminality and transformation in Six Feet Under)from the moment the death occurs to the funeral/burial by the last scene.
But the contributors here offer more than an examination of death. They look at mainstream America's love affair with self-help, its difficulties with pornography, homosexuality and feminism. We read about teenage angst, the identity crisis faced by both Brenda and Claire as well Ruth's matriarchal role. The book closes with a touching, human essay on death by famed Funeral Director/Poet, Thomas Lynch whose books Alan Ball had his actors read before beginning the series.
Since finishing this book, I am hard pressed to find something else that will nourish my unquenchable curiosity concerning this brilliant t.v. series. Six Feet Under deserves to be studied and hopefully one of the essayists in this book will take the time to write a full-length critique. My only criticism (minor though) is that book was written and published before the fifth and last season. Hopefully a revision is in the making that will allow the writers an opportunity to re-examine and bring closure to the numerous topics they have tackled.
A few small caveats - the essays were written at varying times and none were written after the series' final season. Given the rather significant plot points of the final season, I did often find myself wishing that the essays could have been re-visited, to address their points with the perspective of the series taken as a whole. Similarly, while the collection of essay approach allows the book to handle a number of different themes, I longed for a more cohesive view, and I think there still exists a potential for a volume written by one author to explore the show.
Finally, the book is very much composed of academic essays - things you would be writing as an English PHD student. As that implies, there's plenty of pretension and obscure points, but the good news is that it's well worth sorting through the vernacular and the show is substantive enough to support such an approach. If you don't enjoy reading that type of work, however, the book is certainly not for you.
Given the general lack of SFU literature out there, this book is the closest I've seen to engaging the series on the level it deserves.