Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #180
Number of Complete Views: Two
Run from: 2001-2005
Format: Serial Drama
Country of Origin: United States
Number of Seasons: 5
No. of Episodes: 63
Awards: 9 Emmy Awards, 3 Screen Actors Guild Awards, 3 Golden Globe Awards, 1 Peabody Award
Creator: Alan Ball
Producers: Alan Ball, Alan Poul, Bruce Eric Kaplan, Rick Cleveland
Screenplay: Alan Ball
Cinematography: Alan Caso, Lowell Peterson, Jim Denault, Rob Sweeney, Frederick Iannone, Bruce Douglas Johnson
Score: Thomas Newman, Richard Marvin
Editing: Michael Ruscio, Tanya M. Swerling, Ron Rosen, Sue Blainey, Christopher Nelson
Studio: Home Box Office (HBO), The Greenblatt Janollari Studio, Actual Size Films
Distributor: Home Box Office (HBO)
Stars: Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Richard Jenkins, Freddy Rodriguez, Mathew St. Patrick, Rachel Griffiths, Jeremy Sisto, James Cromwell, Justina Machado, Kathy Bates, Patricia Clarkson, Lili Taylor, Ben Foster, Mena Suvari, Rainn Wilson, Eric Balfour, Justin Theroux, Peter Facinelli, Ed Begley Jr., Catherine O’Hara, Joanna Cassidy, Giancarlo Rodriguez, Ed O’Ross, Peter Macdissi, Tim Maculan, Tina Holmes, Marina Black, Sprague Grayden, Aysia Polk
Suggested Audio Candy
Sia “Breathe Me”
Death is a concept that, to some, is just too unbearable to attempt at fathoming. It comes eventually to us all and without exception, and is ultimately the final rite of passage. That scares many people, chills them to their core. Indeed it did me until I had the exclusive pleasure of being introduced to the fruit of Alan Ball’s loins, Six Feet Under. HBO’s involvement is like a license of instant authenticity and I knew beforehand that what would transpire would invariably leave me entertained but what I wasn’t expectant of was to be so profoundly moved that it would incite lengthy sobbing, the likes of which I had not known since childhood.
Six Feet Under was, in itself, a rite of passage. Once I had viewed the Herculean pilot I was fully invested, so much so that I watched episodes back-to-back locked away in my personal bunker like a crack whore. This run five lucrative seasons before coming to its natural conclusion, in the only manner fitting. I watched all 3500+ minutes within a 14-day window and then repeated the feat years later, by which time my own father had passed. Both times, it performed entirely the same number on me and the impact wasn’t lessened by sharing the experience with another. Instead it was like witnessing life through a young child’s eyes, watching another climb aboard the same emotional carousel.
It centered around the Fishers, a family deep in mourning after the unforeseen death of their own pa bear Nathaniel (the majestic Richard Jenkins). There was the prodigal son Nate (Peter Krause); returning to the fold after walking away from the family Funeral business years earlier, younger brother David (Michael C Hall); a conflicted gay man who harbored contempt toward golden boy Nate for having what he wanted and handing it back, mother hen Ruth (the beguiling Frances Conroy); a woman whose identity had long since become blurred and struggled to understand her brood and Claire (the breath-stealing Lauren Ambrose); an awkward but feisty flame-haired teen at her own crossroads both artistically and emotionally.
Each character was like a flower, slowly unfurling before us. Fisher & Sons provided the home base for these four lost souls but also acted as hub, bringing in a number of very significant primary characters, who shared every up and down and each brought their own unique nuances and complexities to the family dining table. Nate’s on-off love interest Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths) and disturbed younger sibling Billy (Jeremy Sisto), surrogate son Federico ‘Rico’ Diaz (Freddy Rodríguez) and his thin-skinned Hispanic bride Vanessa (Justina Machado), and David’s life-partner, hot-blooded black cop Keith (Mathew St. Patrick); all five were expertly drawn and played, and shown warts et all as events unfolded.
In addition, there were series regulars and how’s this for a supporting cast list. Kathy Bates, Patricia Clarkson, James Cromwell, Lili Taylor, Ben Foster, Mena Suvari, Rainn Wilson, Eric Balfour, Justin Theroux, Peter Facinelli, Ed Begley Jr., Catherine O’Hara and Veronica Cartwright to name but a handful; that’s quite a roll call let me tell you. This was the crème de la crème and, to make the deal even sweeter, Alan Ball breathed life into every last one of their characters, no matter how fleetingly they appeared.
Every episode commenced with a death, from heart attack and sudden infant death syndrome to the outlandish like decapitation via road sign and death by runaway blow-up doll. These demises set the tone for each episode and explored the personal, religious and philosophical implications, whilst teaching the Fishers their life lessons and influencing their overall trajectory. Six Feet Under was akin to the iconic tree of its title artwork, with each story arced intricately around the next, glancing boughs and ultimately either bearing fruit or withering.
They evolved in their own unique and organic manner, had their own intimate journeys and always evoked our empathy. Characters were shown in all their lights, regardless of whether or not flattering but, rather than simply making them one-dimensional stereotypes, they were utterly mosaic and there was no finer seamster in the industry than Ball in my opinion to weave it all together. American Beauty is, without doubt, one of my desert island movie selection and that was distilled Ball. What Six Feet Under proposed was five seasons of this effervescent enigma. Do the math as, in my mind, there’s no finer piece of celluloid pound for pound in existence.
Ball used his exclusive vision to tackle all number of taboos, one of which culminated in the longest running loving relationship forged. David and Keith (both of whom were played by heterosexual males) acted in the same way any couple would behind closed doors. Rather than shying away, Ball obliterated any ignorant misconceptions by not treating them any different. I would be the first to admit that, before viewing Six Feet Under, the notion of Adam and Steve left me colder than a Jamaican bobsled team. Film has forever been my teacher and Ball’s open approach enabled me to challenge my own insecurities, such was the inimitable verve of this magnificent beast.
Death was only ever one bagged stiff away and, on rare occasion, the Fishers and their transmogrifying wider family were faced with personal loss first hand. When this happened, it had the ability to reach inside your rib cage, cradle your beating heart and give it a gentle squeeze. We cared, truly – you can’t choose your family but if you could you’d love every last one of these people. I was mesmerized every time Lauren Ambrose’s Claire glanced into shot; her almost Anime rabbit-in-headlight peepers enchanted my soul and I really felt what life was like through her young wide eyes. To single her out would be fruitless however as there wasn’t an artist here not on the very apex of their A-game.
No other piece of art could ever whammy me in quite the same way as Six Feet Under did. It helped me cope at a time when my personal hero was taken from me and taught me that everything is going to be okay, no matter what. The whole kit and caboodle was majestic and Thomas Newman’s poignant score wrapped around it like a fine silk scarf. There were standout episodes and, in particular, a terrifying ordeal for David (Michael C. Hall on the wrong side of an attempted Dexter-ing) sucked the air from our lungs and we felt just as vulnerable as he.
But what has really stayed with me ever since I reached its graceful denouement is the final six minutes of the entire sequence. I shall not spill but a singular bean but I will say this. My heart was broken and fixed in the self-same moment. Somehow Ball had convinced me that, whilst death is a topic which affects us all in turn and clearly most of us dread contemplating, it is a vital part of a beautiful cycle and life is a beautiful gift regardless. I implore you to take this trip, breathe it like air, live it and then lay it to rest. Your life will have been enriched, I can assure you.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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