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Classic Television Rundown: Six Feet Under, Season One, Episode One: "Pilot"

Publisher's note: This is the first in a brand spankin' new Blogulator-wide feature, titled Classic TV Rundown. Each blogger will, periodically, be writing about episodes of classic (or, in our mind, classic) TV shows that haven't already had great coverage at great places like The AV Club or HitFix.com or, for extra-special shows that already have great coverage at those sources, such as The X Files. We hope you enjoy reading these recaps and, perhaps, follow along with your own DVDs. Check out the new entry on the sidebar, where you will easily be able to navigate your way through the various titles we will be hitting throughout time.

Six Feet Under
Season One, Episode One: "Pilot"
Written and Directed by Alan Ball
Nate: You can't really accept it without getting your hands dirty. Well, I do accept it, and I intend to honor the old bastard by letting the whole world see just how fucked up and shitty I feel that he's dead.

David: There's a reason behind everything that we do here...You know nothing. Nothing.
There's a lot to make one cringe at an Alan Ball-scripted movie or TV show. From the smack-you-in-the-face symbolism of Oscar-winning American Beauty to the painful vampire-as-metaphor of True Blood, Mr. Ball has made a name for himself in scripting drama that is occasionally lacking in subtlety.

But for every moment lacking in subtlety, there's frequently an example of a real character moment, a genuine human connection with the material he puts on the screen. Such is Six Feet Under, the first family drama on television that followed a family of morticians who lived at a funeral home. In the pilot episode, there are a handful of those trademark cringe-worthy moments, but even more scenes with genuine emotion. And, in the pilot episode, Ball crafted a portrait of a fully-formed family, one that already knows each other intimately and that has settled into some deeply seated behaviors. The Fisher family is presented in the pilot episode immediately as deeply flawed and deeply human.

First, there's Nate, Jr., who we meet at the airport, on his way home from Christmas. Through dialogue, we learn that he is somewhat estranged from his family, and from action, learn he is a free spirit, especially when he effs the mysterious brunette in the janitor closet who he met on the airplane (who we later learn is Brenda Chenowith, who becomes a more important character very soon). We learn that he's uncomfortable with the sterile way his family's business deals with death and with the grieving families of those passed.

Then there's his brother, David, who we meet in the family kitchen (a place where many family meetings will be held throughout the series), who we learn through dialogue, is uncomfortable with himself, thinks things should be done a certain way, and is hiding his homosexuality from his family.

We meet Ruth Fisher, matriarch of the family, constantly on edge, wanting things to be done a certain way (not unlike her son David), and, as we learn through dialogue (again), experiences mixed feelings about her life because of the affair she was having with a hairdresser she met from church. We also meet Claire, the youngest "oops" child of the Fisher family, who is a little like Nate in wishing she were in a completely different family, and, as we learn, going through a party phase, where she memorably smokes crystal meth right before she learns that her father was just killed in a car accident.

That father is Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. We meet him in the opening scene of the series (save for the opening funeral product commercial(*)) in what turns out to be the only present-day scene we would ever see him alive, right before he is killed in the aforementioned accident, by a runaway city bus. That this would be the only time we would see him alive is intriguing, because throughout the rest of the episode, we see, via what I will call a Memory Ghost(**), how everyone else in the family places Nate Sr. in their mind, and what personality traits he takes on, and how they reflect back on their own personalities and thoughts.

(*)These commercials, thankfully, only appeared in the pilot. They are the Six Feet Under equivalent of True Blood's grating vampire-as-metaphor stuff they did at the beginning of that show. Alan Ball, I shake my fist at these ideas.

(**)This plot device, the Memory Ghost device, was certainly not invented by Six Feet Under, but it is the first modern-day television series use of it that I can consider. Other shows, most obviously Nip/Tuck, used (or stole) this device to varying success.

So, we learn a lot about the Fisher family in the pilot episode by dialogue. And, in general, I do believe that a television series is much more successful by utilizing the "Show, Don't Tell" rule. But, somehow, learning about the characters via dialogue really works here. Like, when Brenda says to Nate, "Are you mad at him or mad at the fact that you're gonna die?" we learn that Nate is concerned with his own mortality. When Claire incorrectly (and humorously) guesses about why Claire is acting weird while on her way to the morgue by saying, "Claire? Are you having sex?" we learn that Ruth is a worried, neurotic, and hopelessly out of touch mother. When David and boyfriend Keith exchange dialogue over the phone about their dinner plans, we learn that David is gay and hiding it from his family.

This could have all collapsed under the control of the wrong writers, or the wrong premises, or the wrong actors. Ball's current series True Blood had in many ways a similar opening setup, but ultimately shifted courses because the premise (vampires living among us) is too silly and flimsy to carry it throughout the show's run. And Six Feet Under certainly showed its flaws in later seasons. But, this "Tell, Don't Show" method of storytelling really works in the pilot episode because the family's interactions are immediately realistic and immediately human. (***)

(***)It can't be overstated enough that this is so easy to connect to because of how funny it is. Although current shows like Breaking Bad do this humor-in-the-darkness thing better, Six Feet Under mastered it from the opening episode. Like when Ruth asks how Nate Sr. looked in the morgue, and Nate Jr. responded, "Dead." Or, when Claire, pissed off at the character soon to be known as Gabe for giving her crystal meth to smoke, says the whole meeting her dead dad thing is going to "burn a little brighter" now. Humor makes stuff so much better, doesn't it?

It is a perfect combination of good character writing and excellent acting performances. Peter Krause plays Nate Fisher, Jr., with the perfect amount of narcissistic egotism and vulnerable soulfulness(****). Michael C. Hall plays David Fisher so stuck-up and yet so in need of something in his life in such a great way (and seeing him here vs. in Dexter highlights what a phenomenal actor he is.) Frances Conroy and Lauren Ambrose are fantastic all-around as Ruth and Claire. And, most importantly, the chemistry between the four actors immediately sparkles on-screen, making it easy for the viewer to immediately connect with the family.

(****)Not coincidentally, his role on Parenthood didn't really take off until his character displayed that narcissistic egotism. Seriously, if there's any actor who does that emotion better than Peter Krause, I'd like to see him/her try.

But it really comes together when we meet each family member's various incarnation of the Nate Sr. Memory Ghost. Nate sees his pops as a constantly needling terror who preys on his own fears of mortality. David sees him as a father constantly disappointed in his life choices. Claire sees him as an outcast clown, much like she sees herself. And Ruth, though she doesn't see him, feels his presence when she thinks about how she cheated on him. All of this is, again, sold by a fantastic guest acting role by Richard Jenkins, whose role would frequently become a highlight in any episode where his name showed up in the credits(*****).

(*****)Credit must go to Blogulator friend Pat, who, whenever I watched an episode with him, would always be ultra enthusiastic when Richard Jenkins was in the opening credits. Thanks for your enthusiasm, Pat!

And the scene near the end of the episode (above), where Nate Jr., lashes against the sterility of the modern-day funeral business, and, in turn, the emotional distance his family feels toward Nate Sr's death, and where Ruth finally lets loose, and David lashes out at Nate Jr. (for reasons that go beyond being upset at Nate's outburst) really sells the episode as a whole.

Ultimately, a few clumsy moments aside, the pilot to Six Feet Under comes as one of the most effective, powerful stand-alone pilots I have ever seen, as fully formed a series opener as I have ever seen. And the gorgeously shot final three scenes kill me, even after watching them again and again. Alan Ball, I shake my fist at you again! But, in love!


Grade: A

Other memorable quotes:
  • "I could give you a ride...I wasn't talking about that kind of ride." -Brenda Chenowith. Ugh, actually, that was one of the more cringe-worthy quotes.
  • "If there's any justice in the universe, she's shoveling shit in hell!" -Old man at funeral, about his wife who just died.
  • "My father's dead, my mom's a whore, my brother wants to kill me, and my sister's smoking crack." -Nate Jr., with regard to how his last four days have been.
  • "Well well, the prodigal son returns. This is what you've been running way from all your life, buddy boy. And you thought you'd escape. Oh, guess what? Nobody escapes." -Memory Ghost Nate Sr., to Nate Jr. Just the way he calls Nate Jr. "Buddy boy" gives me chills. Props, Richard Jenkins!
  • "Well, it's about to start raining frogs here." -Brenda, with her parents fighting loudly in the distance. She's standing by a swimming pool. Is this a Magnolia reference?
  • "I don't even have the self-discipline to floss daily. I've had four root canals. Four. I'm 35. I've had four root canals." -Nate Jr., on his oral hygiene habits and, by extension, his current life. I told you this show is good at Tell, Don't Show.
Next time: Season 1, Episode 2: "The Will".

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  1. Blogger Sean | 8:54 PM |  

    Woo! Test!

  2. Blogger P. Arty | 12:16 PM |  

    Really, really nice write up, Mark. I agree completely that this is one of the most solid pilots ever. The characters are introduced perfectly, as you've noted, and the Nate vs David and Nate vs Nathaniel Memory Ghost introduce the themes of the first season off so well. I am excited to read about your interpretation of other Memory Ghosts in seasons 1 (and 2). To me, the Memory Ghosts are what made Six Feet Under so unique. I can only hope that one day I will be haunted by Richard Jenkins' Memory Ghost!

  3. Blogger qualler | 11:25 AM |  

    Thanks, P.Arty. I'll keep 'em coming. If we were all haunted by Richard Jenkins, I think the world would be a better place.

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