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Classic Television Rundown: Six Feet Under, Season One, Episode Two: "The Will"

Six Feet Under
Season One, Episode Two: "The Will"

Written by Christian Williams
Directed by Miguel Arteta
David: He’s…never…
Second episodes are hard to pull off. With a pilot episode that is as well-executed as the pilot to Six Feet Under, it must be a challenge to write a follow-up episode that continues the intrigue of the pilot while paving a path of its own. It's got to be a lot less flashy than the pilot, because it has a bigger job of setting story lines in motion than the pilot did, but it also has to hold the viewer's interest. And typically, at least for network TV, the second episode needs to, in some ways, re-tell the pilot episode, to give viewers a chance to catch on quickly.

Thankfully, Six Feet Under was produced by HBO in 2001, when the idea that a television show did not need to operate under these constraints first started to circulate. Certainly the success of HBO's first true breakout hit (the incomparable The Sopranos) made it easier for writers to create the model television series that they wanted. Showrunner Alan Ball had plenty of experience working under the network constraints, but with Six Feet Under, he had the opportunity to finally work the way he wanted to, with the writers fully in charge of all aspects of the show, and with minimal network interference from HBO. Six Feet Under's second episode simply picked up where the pilot left off, while deepening the viewer's understanding of the central characters and their relationships with one another.

It helps that the second episode starts in a much more lighthearted place than where the pilot left off. We deepen our relationships with the Fischer clan immediately as we are dropped into one of many more scenes that will play out in the family kitchen, with Nate Jr. (herein referred to as Nate) needling David about wearing the same clothes that he wore the night before(*). In fact, the scene (starting at about minute 7:00 in the first of 6 videos located below) could easily take place on a sitcom -- all that is missing is a laugh track(**). Nate needling David by using a HAL 3000 voice a la 2001: A Space Odyssey was, actually, pretty funny. And, it accomplishes our deepening understanding of the brotherly bond between the two. We can guess that Nate has consistently used this voice to annoy the ess out of David, and David's reaction to it is classic brotherly annoyance.

(*)Of course, David was wearing the same clothes because he was staying over at his boyfriend Keith's place. Nate assumes it's because he was with a lady. Tensions! Secrets!

(**)Which makes sense, because Alan Ball's writing career blossomed while serving as a staff writer for Cybill and Grace Under Pressure. Both of which were run by Chuck Lorre, the possibly-robotic creator of millions of other CBS shows like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. So, the writing lineage between Two and a Half Men and Six Feet Under is closer than you think.

That lighthearted brotherly bond quickly turns serious, though, as the reading of Nathaniel's will reveals that he left 50% of the funeral business to Nate. Nate tries to explain to David that he's just as upset about this as his brother: "David, I don't want it!" while David is disgusted by the fact that he sacrificed his personal life for the good of the family: "Well, excuse me while I go contemplate the irony of that." Meanwhile, in the reading of the will, we also learn that Claire gets a trust fund set up in her name, and she's beyond pissed, while describing her pissiness in a classic sitcom type of way:
Claire: What’s my recourse here?
Attorney: Recourse? Your entire college education is provided for.
Claire: So, I don’t get anything.
Again, all they needed was a laugh-track and we'd be watching a sitcom.

But, the show reveals its different layers again. Claire, at this point in the series depicted more as a type than a character, is shown as a deeper, more likable, more insecure person. Her interaction with the crystal meth-smoking dope from the pilot (who now has a name! Gabe!) is purely revolting in a)How disgustingly creepy and douchey Gabe is, and b)How easily Claire can be swept up into his arms when the tell-tale signs of creepiness and douchiness are written all over his stupid, mustached-earringed face(***).

(***)Gabe is played by Eric Balfour, who made a mini-career for himself in the early 2000s by playing, essentially, the same kind of creepy/douchey character he plays onSFU. He also appeared on The OC as Ryan's ex-girlfriend Theresa's new fiance, as well as playing a creepy/douchey guy who also worked at CTU on 24. Man, CTU will really hire anybody, won't they?

Ruth also shows that she is not a one-note character, the shrill, clueless mother that she was mainly shown as in the pilot. She shows a different side of her personality in her interactions with the hairdresser she says she's had an affair with in the pilot, whose name is Hiram, and is played by the great Ed Begley, Jr(****). We learn a number of things in her scene with Hiram, including the fact that she married Nathaniel when she was just 19, that she met him at church, and that she's growing tired of the funeral business and that she wants to let the sons handle the day-to-day business. Then, there's a hilarious follow-up scene where she tells David that she doesn't want to handle the day-to-day business:
Ruth: David, I won’t be answering the phones anymore.
David: Uh, okay.
The dichotomy between where she decided that she wouldn't be answering phones and how she broke the news to David (i.e. totally apropos of nothing at the kitchen table) is fantastic.

(****)I had an accounting professor who I swear was actually Ed Begley, Jr, portraying the role of Bob Newhart as an accounting professor. There's no better way to describe him.

This episode also deepens our understanding of the funeral industry as a business from a worldwide standpoint and from a day-to-day standpoint within the Fischer family. From a worldwide standpoint, we learn more about the guy who showed up at the end of the pilot, named Matthew Gallardi, who runs a large-scale corporate funeral home business that is looking to buy the Fischer family business. This storyline seems to fit right in with Alan Ball's tendency to smash us across the face with storylines that try to make sweeping statements about some aspect of society that he finds needs change; thus, the corporatization of everything, even (gasp!) the funeral business. Although this storyline is not as obnoxious as the funeral product commercials inserted into the pilot, it's still one that has Alan Ball written all over it, for better or for worse.

What's much more interesting, though, is the funeral business and how the Fischer family runs it on a day-to-day basis. This is the first episode where an outside character dies, with the now-trademark death title card following a short scene that opens the episode where a character dies. We learn, throughout the episode, how they do things like transport bodies to their home, how their employee Federico (a character who will certainly be featured more in the series as it goes along) is an excellent "restorative artist", and we learn a lot more about how David somewhat reluctantly stayed in the family business. We also learn how they deal with their case-of-the-week death by interacting with the families of the deceased. This creates something that makes each episode stand alone -- as Brigitte says, it makes each episode more like a short film. And, by giving us the individual card for each death, we know that the show does take each life seriously. Even if the person who dies is a con artist like Mr. Swanson is.

Like in the pilot, the final scene absolutely kills. The mysterious Brenda Chenowith becomes a little less mysterious in this episode, as Brenda and Nate continue to eff each other's brains out while we learn a little more about her hard-headed nature and connection with the darkness inside of us all. She takes Nate and David on the bus route that kills Nathaniel, where David experiences his first true taste of grief over the loss of his father. The scene is shot beautifully, and is performed beautifully by Michael C. Hall and Peter Krause. Up until this point, the brothers continued to bicker, but their underlying love for each other simmers to the top when they embrace at the end. It's a beautiful moment in an episode that is more about setting up what happens throughout the rest of the season than anything.

Grade: A-

Other memorable quotes:
  • "I get enough death at home. You’re supposed to be my haven away from all that." -Nate
    "I'm not supposed to be anything." -Brenda.
    Another example of Nate being kind of an a-hole and Brenda being mysterious. Their relationship becomes one of the central elements of the show as it goes on, for better or for worse.
  • “A lot of people hold on for one last Christmas and then, buh-bye.” –David, describing another intricacy of the funeral business.
  • "
    Hey. Have a hydroponic raspberry grown by a guy name Guenter who once slept with Stevie Nicks." -Nate, in the sitcom-y scene at minute 7:00.
  • "Why are you still here anyway? Why don’t you go back to Seattle?" -Claire
    "Because I would miss the joyful sense of belonging I get here." -Nate
  • "
    We will be happy!" -Ruth, spoken in her usual shrill, frantic voice used with her children.
  • "I don’t like this bickering." -Ruth
    "I don’t like you sleeping with hairdressers." -David.
    Then, David gets slapped. No wonder David has such a messed up relationship with his family.
  • "
    Come on, nobody could reprogram you. You’re the most original girl in the school. Look at this car you drive. Look at this face you drive." -Gabe
    See? He is creepy. And he has dumb pick-up lines.
And now...below, the episode in full, broken up into six parts. Enjoy.

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