"Six Feet Under" is an hour-long drama series about the Fisher family, who operate Fisher & Sons funeral home in Los Angeles. In the first few moments of the pilot episode, the Fisher family patriarch Nathaniel is killed in a tragic accident, and the audience is at once thrust into the affairs of the surviving Fishers and the continuing aftermath of Nathaniel's death. Each episode briefly details the day-to-day operations and struggles of running a privately owned funeral home, but the primary focus is always centered on the trials and tribulations within the Fisher family. In the pilot, oldest son Nate (Peter Krause) has just arrived from Seattle for a visit, middle son David (Michael C. Hall) is a closeted homosexual who takes over the funeral home after his father's death, youngest daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose) is a troubled and confused high schooler, and their mother Ruth (Frances Conroy) is a deeply unhappy woman formerly resigned to her fate as a simple housewife.
Other major players include David's boyfriend and police officer Keith Charles (Mathew St. Patrick), restorative artist and Fisher employee Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez), Nate's eventual love interest Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths), and her brother Billy (Jeremy Sisto). The supporting cast is equally as impressive as the principals. Some of my favorite character actors such as Rainn Wilson, Ben Foster, James Cromwell, Catherine O'Hara, Mena Suvari, Justin Theroux, and Richard Jenkins have recurring roles. No less than three "Deadwood" regulars have small parts, and even the future Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) both make appearances (though not together).
The cast is uniformly excellent in these roles, helping to gloss over the occasional character inconcistencies present in certain episodes. Nate is perhaps the most uneven, variously alternating between extreme compassion with strangers and extreme self-absorption around his loved ones. There's painstaking detail devoted to his relationship with Brenda, most of which is quite well-realized but occasionally stifles the pacing of certain episodes. David and Federico are, without question, the most likeable characters. David's continual struggle, gradual acceptance, and growing comfortability with his homosexuality is by turns heart-breaking and heart-warming to watch unfold. David is masterfully portrayed by Michael C. Hall, and it's a testament to his abilities as an actor that he can so adroitly convince the audience he is a mild-mannered gay man as well as a cunning serial killer on "Dexter" with equal aplomb. Federico's boyish looks and charming naivete earns him the most compassion through his own struggles, as he aims to provide more for his family than just a modest living.
Claire generally follows a rather pedestrian path of teenage self-destruction and angst, though it bears noting this is the fault of the writers and not the talented actress Lauren Ambrose. The writers script her character as if she inhabits some higher plane of individualism because she's a 'deep' artist, while one of her boyfriends is portrayed as "unhip" because he listens to Top 40 radio and supports the war on terror. It's as if the series itself is perpetuating the juvenile notion that it's a penchant for the obscure that sets forward-thinking people apart from the hordes of conformist drones. As for Ruth, it's a genuine joy to watch her never-ending quest to find true happiness, as she branches out in ways she never did before her husband's death.
That, of course, is the thread that unravels all the cobwebs and skeletons in "Six Feet Under". It's through Nathaniel's demise that the Fisher family is gradually able to transform, over five seasons, from dysfunctional family-in-name-only into cultivating thriving relationships between each other. As they come to terms with their loss and the realization that none of them really knew who Nathaniel was, they're forced to realize through his death what truly matters in life. Though the start of the series is a bit slow and occasionally rocky, the series quickly grew into what I've come to expect from an HBO program: top-notch cast, killer dialogue, a good mix of pathos and humor, and a myriad of interesting plotlines. Thematically it is quite obviously a platform for exploring the way people deal with death and, by extension, life. The other major themes revolve around characters coming to grips with homosexuality and attempts to understand and live with mental illness.
Every episode, with but a few exceptions, opens with the last moments of a future Fisher & Sons client. These deaths, mirroring reality, range from the mundane to the horrific. Sometimes a red herring will be employed, misdirecting the audience into believing one person will die only to realize it is actually someone else's time to go. Within the microcosm of the program, this is a great way to illustrate how unpredictable and surprising death can be. Occasionally a cleverly scripted series of events will culminate in a fatality, like some sort of cruel Rube Goldberg machine only God finds amusing. A few are even, dare I say it, amusing in their absurdity. Unfortunately, some of the idiosyncrasies native to the series aren't quite as clever as the writers appear to think they are. Case in point, another narrative device the program employs are surreal moments of a character acting on their most private thoughts. These can range from an emotional outburst of screaming, to characters bursting into song and dance, to one character blissfully shooting her ex-lovers as if in some sort of bizarre carnival game.
When it is necessary to provide clarification, particularly following a extreme outburst of emotion, the scene will jump cut to moments earlier, illustrating that it never actually occurred. At times this can present confusion, with the audience wondering "Which part actually happened and which didn't?" Even worse, sometimes a truly shocking event will occur, only to discover once again it never really happened. This can feel like a slap in the face to the audience, as if being toyed with or mocked by the writers, akin to the controversial last moments of the "Sopranos" finale. Most of the time, however, the scenes are sufficiently over-the-top enough that it doesn't ring of conceit so much as a clever manner in which to convey the internal thoughts of the characters. Yet another, more effective, method for exploring the internal conflicts within the characters has main cast members speaking to the dead as if they were alive.
This complete series set is beautifully presented in a series of paper DVD sleeves assembled like a book. This isn't the most protective method, but is a greener and more compact way to package the series. The two soundtrack discs included on the previous complete series edition are not enclosed here, but the small character booklet is. If you're new to the series, I strongly suggest not reading the booklet until you've watched all the episodes. Regarding the packaging, out of twenty-four discs, I only had a slight skipping problem with one disc. Otherwise all episodes played perfectly and the majority (but not all) of them were scuff-free. For the admittedly modest price I paid, I really have no genuine complaints in this department.
"Six Feet Under", again mirroring reality, will not tie up every loose end, and not all lingering questions will have a definitive answer. There are a few plot threads that build incrementally only to dissolve into nothing. There are patches of weak writing, such as the puerile and impotent stabs at political commentary that betray the otherwise superlative scripting. The series does get lost in its own creativity at times, and sometimes gorges itself on certain characters who are not quite as interesting as their screen time would suggest. But, ultimately, what prevents "Six Feet Under" from a full five stars is that there are significant amounts of extraneous filler peppered within the series, particularly in later seasons. I feel that this series should've been four classic seasons instead of five excellent, but slightly bloated and overwrought seasons.
I can promise this: you will find yourself caring deeply about these characters, you will find your heart racing when things aren't going as you had hoped, and you will find yourself staying up much later than you had intended to squeeze in one more episode. You will also discover one of the most satisfying television finales ever conceived, during which each character finds some place of stable contentment, bringing warm smiles to the audience, until those final ten minutes when the series delivers an emotional gut punch that perfectly summarizes the entire idea of the series. Watching those last moments unfold, I kept thinking of something Nate said earlier in the series: "Everybody dies. Everybody. What makes you so special?"
I'm glad I met the Fisher family.