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Monday, June 20, 2005

Six Feet Under

George Washington Boyfriend and I have been working our way through the third season of Six Feet Under recently, and though I guess it's dumb to talk about having a favorite t.v. show when you don't actually own a t.v. (as I don't), Six Feet Under is definitely mine.

I like all the HBO series for all the reasons that everyone likes them--original concepts, complicated characters, and damn fine storytelling--but Six Feet Under is to me a much more sophisticated and interesting show than Deadwood or The Sopranos. I've been trying to figure out for a while why this is. There are a lot of little things: that fantastic, Hopper-esque house the Fishers live in; the fact that David and Keith are the most realistic and multi-dimensional gay characters on t.v.; the sheer oddballity of so many of the characters and situations. I also really like how carefully constucted each episode is, and the way the opening death scene and subsequent funeral arrangements raise issues that wind up echoing throughout the episode.

But the thing that most affects me, I think, is the show's treatment of the psychological and spiritual aspects of death, and the ways in which death and life interconnect and overlap. In some ways that's an obvious statement: the show is, after all, set in a funeral home and each episode begins with one or another random and usually unexpected death. But the show is also so funny, and so relationship-driven, that I think sometimes its spiritual issues recede into the background, and I want to pull them out to examine them for a moment.

I don't think most people would describe the show as religious in any conventional sense, but as someone who does a lot of thinking about religion--or maybe more accurately, about the ways in which belief affects and shapes individual identity--I feel that Six Feet Under deals with these issues with more complexity than just about any other television show or movie I can think of.

The trappings of organized religion aren't much present in the show. In the early seasons David is very active in his (apparently quite conservative Episcopalian) church, and we learn that this is where he met Keith. After some flap surrounding his homosexuality, he starts going more regularly to a more liberal church, which Keith and his subsequent boyfriend also attend. The fact that David goes to church isn't a big deal for the show, and neither is the fact that his siblings and mother don't; there's no attempt to make it "mean" something in any reductive way.

Similarly, the church David attends is just a church. There's pettiness among the members of board, and there are silly and annoying people who attend--but the institution ITSELF isn't silly or petty or self-satisfied, or anything, any more than it is sickeningly sweet or populated with uniformly loving and generous individuals. It's like most churches that I know of, in other words; the show doesn't play it for laughs or use it as a shorthand indication of a character's automatic hypocrisy OR his all-American values.

But it's not really the show's treatment of organized religion that interests me--it's the way the show presents death and the dead. From the way the scenes fade out to white, like overexposed photographs, rather than to black, to the constant appearence of the dead in the lives of the living, there's an abiding interest in what comes after death--but no ruling as to what, if anything, actually does. When the Fisher kids have conversations with their dead father, or their dead clients--are we supposed to understand these as projections of their own wishes or anxieties? Sometimes, yeah, as in David's arguments with the murdered gay teenager, but for the most part it's not clear. The dead have a presence here, and whether you want to believe that they actually ARE present, or whether it's just the lingering effect that anyone's life has on someone else's, the show underscores both the materiality of death (blood and guts on the floor; severed heads; characters wrestling grotesque corpses onto gurneys) and its more intangible but still deeply felt effects: the ways lives are completely changed, or hardly changed, or not changed at all because of this person who has somehow stopped being.

I don't know. A media-studies person could talk about all of this more intelligently than I can, and I'm not even sure that I've gotten at what this show really does for me. I often say that what I want out of a book or a movie or a play is to learn something new--by which I generally mean something new about human nature or the way we experience our lives--and I feel that Six Feet Under does this. It struggles with death and its meaning or lack of meaning, and what this in turn means for life, in ways that raise it, often, to the level of great art.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 10:34 PM |


Anonymous Anonymous commented at 12:29 PM~  

hmmm.... I read this with interest until about halfway through, when I decided not to spoil it for myself. Working our way through DVD sets is how g-fav & I watch tv too, so I think this will be our next show to tackle.

(We could develop an exchange program of sorts, though we currently own only a few titles of interest: West Wing Seasons 1-3, Freaks & Geeks (you must see!), The Office 1 and 2 (BBC version), Sports Night. If you and GWBoyfriend are interested in any of these, let me know and I'll ship 'em off!)


Blogger La Lecturess commented at 12:45 PM~  

Don't worry--no real spoilers in the post, I don't think. Sadly I don't actually own a copy of the series, though I may purchase once I start getting a regular paycheque! Would love to see The Office or F&G. Glad you got home okay . . .

Anonymous D commented at 3:16 PM~  

I've been hearing a lot about 6FUnder recently. Got hooked on the show last season, and I think I agree with a lot of your comments about death and materiality and religion. But here's another thing to think about-- the inner desires and fears and psychology in general of the characters. Dreams. The show captures the inner world of the characters without seeming hokey, although at times, the show stretches these barriers with really long dream or fantasy sequences that make you think it's almost too much. This is a show where the dead and the fantasies are more real than the living. I think it's a fantastic concept. And we really believe it-- because that's how we live our lives-- mostly in our heads and in our dreams. That's what literature can effectively capture and what movies and TV, for the most part, cannot-- I'd say with the exception of certain cheesy flashback effect or maybe David Lynch or some other experimental shows where the "inner mind" is on showcase. Wow. I guess I have a lot to say about it after watching last night's episode.

Nice blog, lecturess.

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