After my discussion about content on Six Feet Under which kind of startled and upset me, I thought that it would only be fair to talk about content which pleased and excited me, because it really is a great series, even if I disliked some of the content. After all, the bits that irritated me were a tiny fraction of the whole, and it wouldn’t be entirely fair to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s a reason the show won numerous accolades and awards, after all. (People who haven’t seen the show should be aware that there are ample spoilers in this post!)
One of the things that I really loved about the show was the depiction of natural burial and the realities of the funeral business. I loved the scene in which Nate performed a renegade natural burial for Lisa, against the wishes of her family, and Nate’s burial is an equally powerful moment in the show. The whole concept of natural burial was pretty unfamiliar for viewers when the show was airing (and probably still is for many people), and it was nice to see it portrayed in a positive way, especially on a show about death and burial which revolved around a funeral home, with a funeral director opting for a natural burial when he dies.
The show wasn’t really intended to provide educational information about the funeral industry, so I can’t get too angry about the fact that they didn’t really disclose the realities of embalming, or talk about the Funeral Rule, or show viewers how they could pursue natural burial and educate themselves about funerals. But I did like that they referenced the corporate takeover of the funeral business, which is an ongoing and serious problem; very few funeral homes are family owned these days, which means that SCI basically get to dictate the cost of burial, and that cost is climbing ever upwards. I like to think that Jessica Mitford would have approved. (And I loved the hat tip to Stiff, one of my all time favourite books, which also incidentally would have provided viewers with more information if they chose to seek it out.)
I also really appreciated the portrayal of adult sexuality, by which I mean the sexuality of older adults. Alan Ball in fact specifically said that he wanted to include the sexuality of older adults in the series, and that it was an important aspect of the show for him. From everything else on television, you might think that no one over 25 has sex, but on Six Feet Under, we saw Ruth’s sexual needs, and other depictions of older adults having sex and enjoying it, in addition to wanting sexuality and intimacy, and being interested in exploring new things. I thought that was a really positive aspect of the show, and it’s a note that also fit in well with the themes of repression in the show; seeing Ruth trying to deal with her sexuality, for example, was an integral part of the story, and the discomfort at viewers at the frank depiction of the sexuality of older adults forced a lot of people to do some thinking they might not have done otherwise.
Six Feet Under also explored mental illness in some interesting ways.
Billy, of course, is the flagship crazy character on the show, and I really appreciated that Ball highlighted the struggles artists experience with medications used to manage mental illness. Billy feels useless, unproductive, and uncreative when he’s on his medications, choosing periodically to go off them, risking the consequences, so that he can feel and do art. I think that’s a situation that is not uncommon among artists with mental illness, and even for non-artists who are trying to balance the need to manage their conditions with the desire to live. Medications which address mental illness are fundamentally altering brain chemistry, and sometimes that means that they have unintended consequences. It’s not as simple as “just take your meds,” and people need to see that.
Brenda’s mental illness was also interesting to explore. We see her as highly manipulative and deeply troubled pretty much throughout the show, and it was fascinating to see her struggle with relationships and her own sexuality. I could (and probably will) write a whole post about Brenda, so I don’t want to get too in-depth here, but there’s a lot of material there to ponder.
David and Keith’s relationship is another awesome part of the show. Complex openly gay relationships on television are pretty rare; I think that viewers feel less threatened by lesbians, but gay men unnerve them, which is why most same-sex TV couples are lesbians. And to have a relationship in which David and Keith were struggling with anger management issues, negotiating the terms of an open relationship, and adopting…it was pretty groundbreaking and very intense. I loved that Ball didn’t sugercoat their relationship and turn them into nice pet gay men whom viewers can feel comfortable with, instead really forcing people to confront issues and their own biases. As David struggles with his closeted identity, sometimes I feel like he’s talking directly to the viewers. I did think that some of the portrayal of homosexuality in the show was highly stereotyped, which was unfortunate, but the depiction of David and Keith struck a lot of great notes.
I also thought that Ball slipped in a sly slap in the face to “homosexuality is a lifestyle choice” people by showing that both David and Keith struggled in heterosexual relationships (although Keith seems more bi than gay, illustrating that sexuality is a spectrum), and showing Claire trying to explore lesbian sexuality, and feeling profoundly uncomfortable and unhappy with it.
Of course, you can’t talk about Six Feet Under without mentioning the hallucinatory/fugue states experienced by the characters. They were pretty much a hallmark of the show, and they were one of the things that made it so powerful. In a show all about repression, of course the thoughts of the characters need to bubble over somehow, and it was fascinating to see how different characters dealt with their issues in their hallucinations, from David’s musical theatre interlude as he agonizes over using a surrogate to Claire’s periodic hangout sessions with her father. Stylistically, I think that it was a great choice; how many of us have fantasized about the things we want to say in a conversation, the conversations we wish we could have with dead people, the ability to process and work through something in such a literal way?
The show explored a lot of really interesting topics and issues in a way which managed to stay dynamic and engaging. It’s hard to stay totally flawless over the course of five seasons, but Six Feet Under comes pretty darn close.