Summer DVD Club: Six Feet Under, Episodes 1-3

I want to confess that, unlike with Arrested Development, I’m coming into this show totally blind. So please, go easy on me if I make some grandiose prediction you know doesn’t come true. And if I miss some obvious thematic building blocks, speak up in the comments!

To start, we’ve met the Fisher family: mom Ruth, soon-dead dad Nathaniel, slacker eldest-child Nate, dutiful middle-child David, youngest-child Claire. Claire is an annoying high-schooler who is targeted by high-schoolers who are even more awful. In his will, Nathaniel stipulated that his funeral home, Fisher & Sons, be split between his sons; the business faces a ruthless, much-bigger competitor that wants run Fisher & Sons into the ground. The brothers have decided to run the funeral home together despite Odd Couple-type clashes—the easygoing, likable slob and the uptight, devoted one—and this seems to be what anchors the story.

I love the intro to this show. The first few seconds—a discordant piano strike, an out-of-focus black bird—give it the tone of a horror movie before the first full second has elapsed. But almost immediately after, we hear playful plucked violin, and see pairs of hands doing weird things before some dreamlike imagery in a morgue (sorry, “death care facility”). And with that, we’ve got what seems to be the three building blocks of the show, save the actual Fisher family: the horror of death, the day-to-day of the funeral home business, and a playful but disconcerting sense of Magic Realism. The latter is fitting, as this series first aired in 2003, when it seemed like every fiction writer in America was trying to become the next Borges or Gabriel Marcia Marques.

The horror element gets referenced, slightly, early on. At her dad’s funeral, while unwittingly high on crystal meth, Claire says she’s “still trapped in zombie world.” Outright scares, though, are so far are limited to the show’s regular depictions of death. But doesn’t the constant reminder that everybody dies have a slow-burn horror effect that’s just as unnerving as a scary movie?

When Nate rejects the pomp and circumstance of his dad’s funeral, embracing the awful, corporeal reality his dad’s death, he says this: “The only father we’re ever going to have is gone forever. And that sucks, but it’s a goddamn part of life and you can’t really accept it without getting your hands dirty.”

There’s a nice irony to this stance. While on the surface, Nate condemns an “antiseptic” (his word) approach to death, the show’s frequent depictions of the corpse business basically achieve what Nate’s arguing for. Since we’re so often faced with Fisher & Sons’ business, we viewers see, front and center, the realities of what happens to pretty much everyone who dies: They’re hauled away in hearses, they’re embalmed, and the the deceased’s loved ones are given a hard sell on a fancier casket. I imagine that anyone who’s seen this show will from now on view funerals in a different light.

I like how Six Feet Under tempers the ugliness of the death business with fantastic, sort-of-magic-realist cutaways. They seem to be externalizations of characters’ thoughts or feelings, things they’re hiding from themselves or from others. But the weirder ones particularly work for me. Nate seeing his dad playing naked poker with a bunch of old men? Claire breaking out into showtunes because she’s in love? Like dreams, they don’t really follow any logic, and are discordant. I do hope they don’t end up taking on more conventional patterns.

Anyway, here are my questions for you guys:

... Can anyone play a cold, clinical, generic-looking white guy who’s not bothered by dead bodies as well as Michael C. Hall?

... How many cutaways did it take before you were on board with that concept? (I hope that you are on board with the concept, because if you aren’t, this is probably going to be a very frustrating season.)

... When Claire first saw her dad at the funeral, was he supposed to be dressed like Hunter S. Thompson? What an awesome way to remember your dad.

... When does this show veer from tragedy to comedy and back again for you? When Ruth broke down at the funeral and yelled “I’m a whore!” I have to admit I laughed, but it was a guilty laugh. Like laughing in church. (Or, well, at a funeral.) Anybody else experiencing those kinds of moments?

... Have you noticed how many verbal Mexican standoffs have occurred within the Fisher family so far? They’re great at the three-way argument. We’ve seen Nate versus David versus Claire, and Nate versus David versus their mom, and I imagine this’ll be a recurring way for this family to bicker. (Okay, I guess this isn’t really a question.)

... Ever try crystal meth? Claire’s bad trip didn’t really ring true to me, but I confess, I’ve never done it myself. Did it seem authentic to you?

Ed. note: You can stay up-to-date on DVD Club news and find a listing of all related discussion stories in the Summer DVD Club Archives.

Follow writer Kevin Collier on Twitter: @KevinCollier

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