To reel this back in for a moment, each episode opens with some good solid writing. Often fun and weirdly tense moments bookend the program. The open to almost every episode is cold. You’re dropped into a random scene where someone, you do not know who though is about to die in what often winds up being a delightfully gruesome manner. It always puts you on the edge of your seat due to the fact that the “time to murder” clock is different in just about every episode. Deaths are rarely, if ever, repeated. The writers also took a fair amount of morbid joy in dangling people out there that you’re sure are going to die. These putzes range from drunk drivers, to a guy filling their apartment with gas, to feigned heart attacks. You never know what exactly will happen, you’re only sure of the fact that someone in front of you is about to die a horrible death. At first, I greeted these macabre moments with a certain amount of glee. They rarely had a great deal to do with the plot, they were just a way to drive the plot forward; the folks who die in the open were almost always the people that were given funerals by the Fischer family.
But the way in which the deaths are handled in the first few seasons gives way to one funeral after another that, in some way, emotionally harms one of the main characters in the show. After a time, I began to dread the white screen; the way in which the show cuts from one scene to another. Whenever someone dies, or a scene changes, they cut to white. They allow it to sit there for an uncomfortably long amount of time. Then, if someone has, in fact, died, they go ahead and place the name on the screen with their year of birth and death, like a tombstone. This leads to some positively gruesome fake-outs where a character will enter a room where someone appears to be dead, the “dead” person’s name will be called out, and then the screen cuts to white. It’s devilishly manipulative, really.
The characters are often written in a similar manner. Each of the principle characters is meant to take up a different sort of personality type, like you do on a TV show. Claire is the laid-back artsy type who spends the beginning of the show wondering how she can be as angst-ridden and annoying as possible. David is the type-A personality who happens to be gay. Nate is the eldest and the wild child. Mrs. Fischer is literally an elderly mother without much of anything that sets her apart from any other elderly woman. Keith is David’s boyfriend. Nate’s girlfriend, Brenda starts as a guy he sexes in a closet. Frederico is Mexican.
The show starts deliberately flat, remarkably flat. In the beginning I found myself thoroughly let down by the show that was taking place in front of me. But one of the things that kept me going was the somewhat vile sense of humor that lurked in the background. Rather than seeing the death of others as something to completely fear, like I did and mostly still do, it was kind of embarrassing. People would regularly be seen bare-assed on prep tables as they were prepped for their funerals. They’d have a weird saggy boob here, a wrinkled cock there, and people would just keep speaking in the room with the naked corpse. It was just a part of their nine to five. There were other things like biker funerals, entire musical numbers, porn-star funerals, etc. where people would still die but it was just ludicrous. It helped to remove the anxiety, and in that sense of comfort that you gain dealing with death, so too do the characters start to open up.
Nate’s girlfriend, who he originally sexes in the closet of an airport after having just met her changes from a dull harlot-type to someone who self-diagnoses addiction, has a full-throttle, astoundingly insane brother, a mother who deals with the death of her husband by having sex with a man who appears to be approximately Brenda’s age, she was the “star” of a bizarre series of psychological case studies and is by all accounts a .01 percentile genius, has Nate’s name tattooed on her lower back, and a whole mess more, and the majority of this is revealed in the first season. Nearly all of the characters in the show take on this sort of dizzying evolution. The show is not boring, but almost more importantly, the show never bores itself. No one’s left alone for terribly long. While many shows tend to struggle with an ensemble cast this large, Six Feet Under thrives with the character selection. Not only do characters grow and change but they always evolve together. It’s not enough for Billy to be crazy and scare Nate, Billy has to date Claire, who’s then going to upset David, who’s then going to get short with Keith, who then… You get my point. It reproduces family life perfectly.
It’s my main sticking-point with most family comedies. They just do what Community does, they break off two or so characters into one silly situation, a few more into another, and then ask Pierce to yell something racist. Don’t get me wrong, I love Community an unhealthy amount, just as every other person who hates The Big Bang Theory does. Not every episode does this, and it’s no mistake that the best episodes of Community feel the most familial in that sense, like Shirley’s wedding. People are coming together and all reacting to what each other character is doing. We mix humor and emotion, we laugh while connecting to whichever character we find ourselves closest to. But that feels like damn near every episode of Six Feet Under. I’m not joking when I say that I used to watch episodes every once a week or so, due to the fact that they were so emotionally draining. You felt real drama within a wonderfully dysfunctional family unit.
Did Claire spend the vast majority of the show’s run being a spoiled little shit? Absolutely! That’s not because she’s a bad character, it’s because she’s the youngest in the family and her father felt bad that he didn’t spend enough time getting to know her so he made her into a spoiled little shit. That’s not the writers’ fault, like I thought until I began writing this, really. It’s life. You gain a window into the Fischer Family’s life, and along the way, you’ll laugh and cry (like a bitch during the finale if you’re anything like me) and maybe even learn to love family members you once thought you never could. Funny how death can make us do something like that.