Six Feet Under - Complete First Season
One of the most difficult genres to master is the black comedy. The participants must tread the thin line between irreverent humor and bad taste. Often, the subject matter of the black comedy is death. Like greats like Capra’s ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ or Hitchcock’s ‘The Trouble with Harry’, HBO’s ‘Six Feet Under’ has some pretty big shoes to fill. Fortunately for those of us that enjoy this genre the show more than measures up to the high standards set by these great films. For one thing there is the synergy between Alan Ball, writer of the sardonic ‘American Beauty’ and a dream cast typical of HBO endeavors. The story line is a mixture of plots contained in a single episode and multi episode arcs that will keep the audience riveted to the screen each week. The first episode opens with Nathan Fisher (Richard Jenkins) the patriarch of the clan who is killed by a bus while riding in the new family hearse. He owned and operated the family business, Fisher and Sons, an independent funeral home. Assisted by his younger son David (Michael C. Hall) the business is just getting by, they are a typical middle class family with the notable exception that the income is derived from death. The grieving widow of the undertaker is Ruth (Frances Conroy) who tries her best to keep the family together. The other two Fisher children include Claire (Lauren Ambrose) and the prodigal son Nat (Peter Krause). Claire is a high school student that drives the old hearse, tricked out in a lime green; she is at that age where rebellion is a way of life. She experiments with sex and drugs and is committed to seek life in response to the death that is always present in the home she shares with the funeral parlor. Nat had left home some time ago and returns for his father’s funeral only to find that he was left half the business, sharing it with his brother. The brothers could not be more different from each other. Nat is free spirited, sexually experimental and is chaffed by the thought of responsibility. David on the other hand is homosexual, looking for a stable relationship and lives for his work. Mother Ruth is the poster woman for the repressed. Well, at least on the surface. She was having a long standing affair with her hair dresser but other than that makes Mrs. Brady look like an amateur. Each episode opens with a guest corpse meeting there final moments of life. While death usually restricts participation in this show death is only the beginning of a fine performance. Each corpse gets to interact with the imagination of one of the Fisher family members. This wild, unpredictable writing keeps each episode of this series fresh and imaginative.
Even the best writing in the world will fail without the right cast members to assume the roles. Typical of HBO Sunday night shows Six Feet Under took the time to go for absolute quality in casting not only the primary roles but each secondary role as well. Krause is no stranger to quality, ground breaking television. He was in the main cast of the excellent ‘Sports Night’. As the elder Fisher child he wears the role with comfort and gets every nuance of the superior writing to life. Here is a man that tried to run from his family and their business only to ironically find that death has drawn him back. While Nat is getting used to his new found responsibility he also begins a hot and heavy relationship with Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), the daughter of two progressive shrinks and more messed up than any and all of the Fishers. This lust for life is forced into juxtaposition with the ever preset death. Ambrose is a delight to watch. Her performance is deeper than you would expect from such a young actress. She is someone to watch as she perfects her craft. Hall as the repressed David is the personification of the role. Caught between his somber professional life and his hidden sexual life he is also a man torn between his life and the life others feel he should have.
Keeping with the typical formula of television, each episode has a different director. What makes this series work is the way Alan Ball and the producers keep continuity between the episodes. Ball is familiar with the combination of dysfunctional families, death and the cutting edge of black comedy. Coming off his Oscar for writing ‘American Beauty’ the creative freedom afforded by HBO for its premier Sunday night spot must have been Ball was looking for. A good friend of mine married into a family that worked in funeral homes. According to his wife the behind the scenes aspect of this show is on the money. When this type of realism is used as the backdrop for a family with as many problems as the Fishers a hit show is the only logical outcome. Ball creates a world of contrasts here, the need for the reaffirmation of life through sex by David, Claire and Nat in a world surrounded by death. David’s hiding his homosexuality from his family yet the repression he needs in that part of his life affects his relationships. These are people facing a somewhat exaggerated degree of normal problems yet their vocation is one that is common place yet rarely spoken about. Just because someone is dead doesn’t mean their part in the show is over. In most episodes the recently departed often ‘speaks’ to the Fishers, a sardonic blast from the dead. There are also times when the fanciful and often dark thoughts of the Fishers are acted out only to pull rapidly back to reality. The pacing and cinematography here is better than in most films. There is an attention to the details that permits the stories to flow not only within an episode but play out through multi-episode arcs.
Like the treatment of other HBO Sunday series this one was given excellent attention. The video did remain full screen although the audio was boosted to a full, rich Dolby 5.1. The sound mix was very well done especially considering how integrated the rocking sound track is to the action. There are commentary tracks that include the insights of creator Alan Ball, two alternate audio tracks with previously not heard music mixes and a documentary on the production of the series. The later includes interviews with the cast and Ball. I would have like to have had a commentary for every episode, much like how the Shield was done, but this follows collections like the Sopranos where only special episodes receive this attention. The video is full screen but extremely crisp and clear. I did not notice any defects, edge enhancements or alterations in the color palette. The audio makes some what limited use of the full set of speakers. The sub woofer does come to life at key moments but the sound is more like Dolby Surround than 5.1. This is a series that drew me every Sunday night. Like Oz and the Sopranos it is a jewel for HBO. Whether you are a fan or looking for a way to catch up before the next season starts this is a worthy addition to your collection.