Why—in today's ‘golden age of television’—I turned to the surreal family drama that dominated television from 2001 to 2005.
In a scene from Six Feet Under’s fourth and penultimate season, Claire Fisher—the family’s only daughter—brainstorms with a group of fellow fine arts students about collaborating on an installation project. “I want to do something really confrontational, you know?” She says. “I mean, the world is ending out there, and people are just getting cosmetic surgery and watching debutantes get screwed up the ass.” In previous episodes, Claire has been lamenting that her photography practice doesn’t mean enough. This arc aired in mid-2004, so was likely filmed in late-2003; Claire’s fear that her art is pointless is set against the backdrop of the early, egregious stages of the War on Terror (in a later scene, Claire and her friends drop AMT and write “TERROR STARTS AT HOME” on her bedroom wall in blue paint.) The political context has changed (if only by a slim margin), but the scene is alarmingly familiar: young, privileged creatives trying to find meaning in a world that is falling apart. It’s an apt demonstration of Six Feet Under’s deftness as a television series, namely its ability to reflect anxiety within a particular moment while simultaneously bursting beyond the frame, creating a timeless legacy.
I have vigorously loved Six Feet Under since I first watched it as a 17-year-old (my ex gave me the entire box set as a birthday/high school graduation gift.) I was shocked by the way it affected me when I initially watched the whole series (after the heartbreaking finale, “Everyone’s Waiting”, I cried so hard, and drank so much, that I spent the rest of the night purging my woes.) It made me feel aware of the space I held in the world, more than I ever had before. It was like I understood the power of art for the first time; how diving so deep into a fictional universe had the ability to strengthen your ties to reality.. I was compelled to rewatch Six Feet Under because I wanted to return to this world that I claimed to profoundly understand as a teenager. I wondered what my adult heart and mind would make of these dimensions. My assumption was that I would come away more moved than ever. This proved to be aggressively correct.
When broken down into its distinct parts, each facet of Six Feet Under is exquisitely crafted and stylized. There are the cast and characters, led by the Fisher family: Frances Conroy as the repressed, secretly desperate-to-be-free matriarch Ruth; Peter Krause as Nate, the eldest, arrogant yet spiritually liberated son; Michael C. Hall as the buttoned-down, tight-lipped David (a closeted gay man); and Lauren Ambrose as Claire, who, amidst the perennial weed smoke and the rotation of pathetic boyfriends, desires nothing more than to be taken seriously. There is the setting: the palatial, seemingly labyrinthine Fisher & Sons (later Fisher & Diaz) funeral home in Los Angeles, where the Fishers have lived for almost all of their lives.
Then there is the execution, perhaps most crucial of all: each episode begins with a cold open of a death, that will result in a body, that presumably turns up at the funeral home; in other instances, someone close to a character dies. Almost always, though, the dead appear to the living as figments of their imagination, but manifesting as corporeal, human versions of themselves. Conversations ensue, particularly with Nathaniel Fisher, the patriarch, whose death on Christmas Eve catalyzes the whole series. As a viewer it is hard to parse Nathaniel’s true character; we only ever understand him in relation to others. For Nate and David, he is most often a prophet and a provoker, an Eye of Providence conduit for their greatest fears. Ruth and Claire’s engagement with afterlife Nathaniel is different, imbued with tenderness and a sense of closure. “I miss what we had,” Ruth says, during a camping trip with a new boyfriend. “So find it again,” says Nathaniel, letting her go.
Six Feet Under both speaks directly to its time and endures beyond it. For a show that started airing in 2001, it grappled with complex modern issues; David Fisher, in particular, is recognized as the first realistic gay character on television. At first, his arc feels mired in cliché—he is arrested for public sex in a parking lot in Vegas, and carries with him a pervasive sense of self-loathing—but, of course, these are clichés because there are some truth in them. He eventually transforms into a self-assured husband and father, and his relationship with his partner Keith is the most consistent and truthful romantic connection in the whole series. There are quieter moments, too, that establish a progressive undertone. Claire has her own foray into queer experimentation that effectively portrays the nuances of platonic and intellectual attraction; she discloses to David how much easier it would be if she were gay. “I’d have a really defined subculture,” she opines (he swiftly shuts her down). Ruth’s entire characterization is a wry subversion of what we’d expect from a widowed housewife. Her pursuit of cerebral and sexual freedom feels more aligned with the male midlife crisis trope, rather than an emboldening path she traverses at her own pace. In the end, her greatest companion is Bettina (the inimitable Kathy Bates): a straight shooter who opens her up to life’s possibilities. It’s a delightful conclusion for Ruth who, when we first meet her, seems to have been suffocating in her own silence for most of her life.
These narratives, incendiary for their time, are only part of what makes Six Feet Under feel so prevailingly potent. The show hinges on a dual prism of fantasy and reality across its five-season run: the dead are regularly situated in the world of the living, but the living and dead coalesce in vivid fantasy sequences that speak acutely to the characters’ psychic struggles. The surreal functions as both a comedic reprieve and a dour one, which, when considering the complete arc of these characters, can gesture to the tragedy (or lack thereof) of their fates. As I returned to Six Feet Under when 2019 dovetailed into 2020, I felt especially attuned to how this conversation between multiple worlds creates such a unique and ageless viewing experience. The Fishers, and the people in their lives, are plagued by anxieties, fueled by their inner monologues (and the fantasies they create) but also the state of the crumbling world they’re living in. The Fisher siblings, especially, represent three distinct modes of reckoning with one’s insecurity; tracking from immersive, dystopian fantasy to more active engagement with the hopelessness of living in America in the early 2000s. This intersection between character and experience—both real and imagined—feels startlingly modern, a template for cultural artifacts that intend to reflect the nuances of an anxious existence.
David’s dream sequences before he comes out read as fantastical indulgence, an opportunity to break free of his repressed exterior. In a season one episode he performs an elaborate song and dance routine of Bobby Rydell’s “Life’s A Ball”, before being interrupted by Ruth. In season five, when he and Keith are trying to start a family, he has recurring dreams that connote his fear of Keith—a muscular, straight-passing gay man—preferring to be with a woman. David’s fantasies occasionally digress into darkness, most profoundly in the aftermath of a senseless, random carjacking when he is soaked in gasoline and beaten by a stranger. These instances are contained, though; David overcomes this trauma, in part, and if it ever reoccurs, it materializes as a motif of the red-hooded carjacker slowly moving towards him; an astute metaphor for PTSD. Generally, David goes on to live a much happier and more comfortable life than he ever expected. His fantasies reflect his deepest fears, but they do not determine his fate.
Nate’s imagined sequences, by comparison, are almost entirely bleak and ominous projections of the way he interacts with the world, as well as the way he will leave it. His fear of mortality is countered by his innate ability to connect with the bereaved people who walk, helpless, through the doors of the funeral home. As such, his fantasies directly implicate him, placing him in conversation with a dead person who degrades his actions and desires. These are the sequences that are the most surreal and extended, with Nate’s subconscious foreshadowing the tragic irony embedded in his fear of death: that, at the series’ end, he will die suddenly, just after his 40th birthday. In a season four episode he has a dream that is painfully drawn out: Nate returns, over and over, to the embalming room in the Fisher & Sons basement. As he opens the same door again and again, each scene he encounters speaks to his fear of death and abandonment; the final, most telling incarnation has Nathaniel, Nate’s recently dead ex-wife, and his childhood dog seated as if at a dinner party around Nate’s dead body. “Who wants the end piece?” Nathaniel asks. Nate sits down, smiles, and offers his plate as his father begins to hack into his corpse’s calf.
Unlike her brothers, Claire’s subconscious rarely materializes on-screen. She is different from David and Nate; she is always attempting to actualize her desires—to transform them into her lived experience—and embodies a specific type of externalized millennial angst that her family has traditionally repressed. One of the rare exceptions is when Claire goes to look for her father’s grave in the season three finale. She finds him instead, wearing a straw fedora and a Hawaiian shirt (a far cry from his three-piece suit uniform), and he takes her to a party, which—judging by the cast of characters present, who we know to be dead—is a festive interpretation of the afterlife. Everyone expresses distress that Claire is with them, and hopes she’s only visiting; they know she doesn’t belong there. She is the opposite of her father—the living eye of her family—and in the series’ final episode we see her dying peacefully at the age of 102, surrounded by her photographs; the moments of intimacy she has observed and documented.
In times of uncertainty and crisis, we long to operate in liminal spaces; to find solace in moments of fantasy in order to understand moments of brutal reality, or to exist in a messy in-between. Six Feet Under knows this impulse, and offers a considered, timeless reflection of how to make sense of an inherently anxious world. “You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone,” the ghost of Nate says to Claire in the series finale, as she takes one last photo of her family before driving to New York to start a new life. I suppose it’s fitting to disagree with these phantom projections of once-beloved characters. Across the show’s five seasons, the ghosts get so much wrong, but perhaps nothing as wrong as this; for Six Feet Under collects all the little parts of life in a compact, 63-episode bundle and stays with you, permanent and lucid, as if it were a part of your own body.