The year after my father died of leukemia, I was a freshman in college. Even though I was not Jewish, I started studying Hebrew and making plans to live in Israel. My sister started wearing black lace scarves, studying opera and going to high school in her bare feet -- through a cold and rainy winter in Seattle. My mother put a red bumper sticker on the stove that had the phone number for Godfather's Pizza. It said: "Mothers Against Cooking." My father's death dropped a bomb of surreality onto what had previously been WASPy, suburban tranquility.
It is for these reasons that I have fallen in love with HBO's Six Feet Under, a new black dramedy about a family of undertakers in L.A. I feel a certain kinship with the show's writer Alan Ball (of American Beauty fame), who was in the car as a teenager when his sister, then 22 and driving, was killed in an accident. Six years later, his father died, too. Now, 20 years later, Ball has put all that sadness, as well as all of the absurdity produced by sadness, into this series.
Ball hates the term "dysfunctional" -- clearly a word too pat to describe the family he has created. The family's patriarch, Nathaniel Fisher, who has just bought a brand-new hearse, is talking on a cell phone and lighting a cigarette when he gets killed by a bus in the first episode. He re-appears, after death, to smoke pot, drink beer and confound his children.
He is survived by his already long-suffering wife, Ruth, who wears socks with Mary Janes and flower-print aprons. The night her husband is killed she asks her daughter, Claire, who drives a 1960s style hearse, if she is having sex and/or doing drugs. Claire has just tried crystal meth for the first time to impress a boy. She tells her secret to her oldest brother, Nathaniel, played glibly by Sports Night's Peter Kraus. Nate Jr. is the prodigal oldest son who left L.A. to work as an organic grocer in the Northwest.
The drama intensifies when Nate Jr. flies to L.A. from Seattle for the funeral and has sex with a stranger on the plane. The woman in question, Brenda, played by Oscar-nominated actress Rachel Griffiths (who paid her own way from Australia just to audition for the part), has a name from a childhood storybook tattooed on her behind. Nathaniel's younger brother, David, the good and under-appreciated child who stayed in the family business, is gay, in the closet, and played brilliantly by Canadian actor Michael C. Hall. He hates the funeral business but doesn't know anything else. He also has an African-American boyfriend who works for the LAPD and is tired of David denying their relationship to his family -- and everyone else.
Ball's central argument in the series is that, as a culture, we do not deal well with death. He parodies the sanitized cans of dirt that mourners sprinkle as the coffin is being lowered into the ground and the insistence that our embalmed loved ones look in death as "real" as they did in life. Ball shows us the tricks of the trade (cans of cat food used to prop up the "cans" of a dead porn star, wax and latex used to recreate an ear, etc.), but he also shows the importance of ritual -- even in a world in which $4,000 caskets retail for $9,000.
Ball also uses the series to skewer the corporate merger mentality. When a short-haired, trench-coat-wearing, insurance salesman type approaches the Fisher brothers about selling their funeral home to a mega-chain and threatens them with financial ruin if they don't, the brothers start addressing him as "a little Nazi." They decide to keep the business, and, mysteriously, the house across the street that was purchased by the mega-corp to put the Fishers out of business burns down. Was it Claire? Or the gothic sex goddess Brenda? My money's on the mom.
Six Feet Under is a welcome call for a little cultural self-examination. Clearly, our rituals need a re-infusion of meaning and emotion. I used to think cemeteries were obscene -- an absurd and ecologically incorrect waste of land. But now, when I return to the lake over which my father's ashes were scattered, I wouldn't mind having a tombstone. The comfort would come not from having my father's body "six feet under," but from having a sense of place, ritual and resolution. In the meantime, I'll have a good cry -- and a good laugh -- in the cemeteries on HBO.
Six Feet Under airs on HBO Sundays at
9:30 pm, Tuesdays at 11:30 pm and Wednesdays at 9 pm. The season finale, a double episode,
airs this Sunday, Aug. 19, and starts at 9 pm.