One of the weird ironies of the past six months is that I've never written or talked so much about television before in my life, and yet -- thanks to the "content agnostic" argument of Everything Bad -- I've had almost nothing to say about the aesthetic or cultural merits of any of the shows I've been discussing. But I can't let the series finale of Six Feet Under on Sunday night pass by without a few closing thoughts about the show.
I've felt since season two that Six Feet, at its best, was just about as good as anything that's ever been on American TV. I sometimes felt that the show suffered slightly from its creators not being fully aware of what made it so good, a perspective problem that led it down some unnecessarily dark alleys. (Literally in the case of the notorious torture episode with David.) Because it was first and foremost a show about death, I think Alan Ball et al. assumed that people were tuning in because of all the darkness. But I think the true beauty of the show was its weird hopefulness in the face of all that darkness. What kept me so attached to the show were those little glimmers, like the evolving friendship between David and Nate in the first seasons. When the show faltered, I think its problems stemmed from its growing too dependent on the gloom -- on the madness and murder and suicides -- and losing that very careful balance between dark and light that it had at its best moments.
A few other thoughts on what made it so original:
Death. Obviously it's a show about death, but I think some of the commentary about this has it slightly wrong. You always hear that Six Feet was so refreshing because the rest of the culture is so resolute in its death-denying ways. But I don't think that's right exactly -- death is far more common on your average television drama than it is in most of our lives. (Think CSI, Law and Order, Sopranos, etc.) What's rare is the willingness to think about the aftermath of death, which is the world that Six Feet explored so powerfully. People are always dying on the screen. What you never see is what their surviving family looks like two months later.
L.A. I've always thought that it was a brilliant and hugely original portrait of Los Angeles, though I've had a lot of resistance to the idea when I've made that argument to people in conversation. Part of the problem seems to be the Fisher house itself, which is so perversely non-L.A. that people can't seem to get around it. But so many of the other details seem exactly right to me, and entirely fresh -- aspects of the city that never make it into the standard Beverly Hills cliches: Claire's art school scene, Brenda's burned out, vaguely cultish psychologist parents, the sixties holdouts around Ruth's sister, Rico's middle-class hispanic family. Six Feet's relationship to LA is particularly striking, because HBO now has three (!!) separate shows set in the exact same agents-and-cell-phones milieu that we've seen a thousand times since Tony Roberts moved to LA in Annie Hall. So I was pleased to read Alan Ball's comments to Heather Havrilesky in Salon this week: "... we tried very hard to capture the kind of surreal, hazy air, baked-out existential feel of Los Angeles instead of the palm tree one that you see in movies, but also all the back roads where the paint is flaking, and most of Los Angeles is really, really ugly. We tried to capture that, and just the weirdness of living in Los Angeles, especially the weirdness of living in L.A. if you're not in the entertainment industry."
Grunge. This is a subtler element, but I've always felt that Six Feet was one of the very few popular narratives that internalized whatever cultural shift happened with Nirvana in the early nineties. Both Nate and Claire always seemed like distinctly post-Kurt-Cobain characters to me -- outsiders intrigued by drugs and contemptuous of mainstream society who were at the same time resolutely NOT hippies. This seems to be a somewhat conscious theme for Ball as well -- when we meet Nate in the first episode, he's working at a health food co-op in Seattle, and one of the last flashbacks we see of him is his giving Claire her first joint while grieving Kurt Cobain's suicide.
Drugs. Has there ever been a show with such constant drug use, and so little moralizing about it?
Finally, Nate. Heather Havrilesky is hands down my favorite TV critic right now, but it seems to me she has a bizarre vendetta against Nate. I loved the exchange in the Alan Ball interview where she asks a few questions that work under the assumption that Nate is a loathsome bastard, and Ball responds with what I think is a much more accurate assessment of what was so striking about his character: "I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Nate and his desire to get to the root of things and be authentic. And I think he is always [Pauses] he's difficult to describe because he's so complicated. Probably what is at the root of a lot of his less than noble actions is that, while not serving those who he's committed to well, there's something admirable, on some level, about still having this childlike hope of finding the right thing. Because there is the notion of, you know, you grow up, you lose your illusions, whatever, and you have to do that to become a functioning adult in society, but there is something fundamental that gets lost, a kind of joy. So I find him to be a deeply tragic character and a deeply romantic character. Whether I would say he's just a garden-variety asshole, no, I don't think so at all." That mix seems totally original to me (particularly when you factor in the post-grunge specifics), just as David's character, in its different way, seemed totally original. You watched those two and thought: I've never quite seen someone like this on television before. Claire was equally hypnotic to watch, but I always felt that her character had evolved out of My So-Called Life, so it was just a tad more familiar.
There's more to say, but I should probably just let go. I had a genuine feeling last night watching the finale that I was going to miss these people, which I can honestly say I've never had with a television show before. I suspect I'm not alone in feeling that way.