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Classic Television Rundown: Six Feet Under, Season One, Episode Eleven: "The Trip"

Six Feet Under
Season One, Episode Eleven: "The Trip"
Written by Rick Cleveland
Directed by Michael Engler
Federico: How can a beginning and end be so damn close together?
Vanessa: Some babies just aren't meant for this world, Rico.
News that has recently circulated about the entire staff of The Walking Dead being fired by showrunner Frank Darabount made me consider the way that the writing staff of Six Feet Under was treated. There is no doubt that different showrunners have different skills, and different styles. For every showrunner who uses their show as an opportunity to let other writers put their personal stamp on a television series, like Ball did with Six Feet Under (and has continued to do so with True Blood) and David Simon did and does with The Wire and Treme, there are a few more who control every aspect of the show. David Milch reportedly re-wrote every word of every script for Deadwood. Mad Men is very tightly controlled by Matthew Weiner, with much writing staff turnover throughout its first four seasons. And, Aaron Sorkin, who prior to writing movie screenplays(*) like The Social Network was the showrunner for The West Wing and Sports Night mainly treated his writing staff like researchers.

(*)I have yet to see The Social Network but I am very excited to do so. And I am ridiculously excited for his next project, Moneyball, based on the book by Billy Beane about the Oakland A's front office. Baseball plus prestige television equals Qualler's dream come true.

Interestingly enough, the writer of this episode, Rick Cleveland, had himself a flame war with Sorkin out in the public domain of the internet (albeit an extremely articulate flame war.) In The West Wing's first season, Cleveland, then a writer for The West Wing, co-wrote the season one episode "In Excelsis Deo", for which the pair were nominated for, and won, an Emmy.

Only, Sorkin did not see it that way. He went out of his way to point out that, not only did he only give Cleveland a writing credit so he could get paid, Sorkin rewrote every aspect of the episode, changed the name of the title, and generally make it what it was (i.e. good), and he was fired off the show for performance reasons. Cleveland, meanwhile, was miffed that Sorkin did not invite him onstage at the Emmys for his writing credit for this episode and for Sorkin spreading lies about who wrote what in the episode.

Although the two eventually made up, it serves as an interesting point about how shows like Six Feet Under get made. Ball has often said in interviews and DVD commentaries that he always told himself that if he ran a show, he would provide a good working environment for writers and allow them a lot of freedom to take an episode from start to finish. This is especially evident in the first season of this show, with consecutive episodes often feeling like they take place on different series.

Take this episode, "The Trip", a mostly serious rumination on the fragility of life. It opens with the death of an infant, which hangs heavy on Federico, with his wife deep into the pregnancy of their second child. As David and Nate travel to Las Vegas to attend a funeral directors conference, Rico is left with preparing the body of the infant, doing so with trepidation and anticipatory grief for his own child. When Vanessa mentions to him that the doctors want her on strict bed rest, he naturally connects the dots and jumps to the conclusion that their own child will also be facing serious difficulties.

The "trip" that David and Nate go on finds them finally doing away with the awkward Krohner plot that was introduced in the series premiere. And they do so in well-scripted fashion. David, having been pegged to do a conference seminar on the state of independent funeral homes today, goes off his script(**) to deliver his true feelings about Krohner, and, comes to realize something about his father in the process:
"Don't get me wrong, my father worried about the bottom line, too, but he also worried about other things. Like comforting people and helping them face profound loss. Maybe now, maybe now, more than ever, we should try to be a little more like him."
(**)This should frustrate me, when shows use the "Ah, Screw It , I'm Not Reading From The Script, I Want To Speak From The Heart" trope, but this is the second straight TV episode I watched where it didn't annoy me so much. The one before was Friday Night Lights, when Tami Taylor went off-script to deliver her thoughts on how she handled a student issue in a season four episode. No doubt it had something to do with Michael C. Hall and Connie Britton being among the best TV actors of all time.

Ruth spends much of the episode learning how to re-arrange flowers in a less funeral-y way, and Claire spends time with Gabe at the hospital, where he was staying following an apparent suicide attempt. (And writer Cleveland mostly gracefully did away with the clumsy attempt at a cliffhanger left for him from the previous episode by very quickly dismissing the notion that Gabe was dead.)

David had a night out with some other funeral directors and, after a lap dance where the stripper casually mentioned to his cohorts that he is gay, ended up paying for the services of a sleazy prostitute (and getting himself arrested). David called Keith to bail him out, and Keith gets the Las Vegas cops to drop charges on him, but is understandably pissed at his reckless behavior. Ruth is also a little closer to confronting David about his homosexuality throughout the episode. And Brenda and Nate mostly enjoy a fun time together in Vegas, until they discover that Billy was stalking them and snapped some photos of them together in their hotel room.

In the end, Rico's worry about baby Augusta is for naught: he is born healthy, and a new life is begun. Rico and Vanessa's smile, combined with the moving music, made for a spine-tingling, emotion-filled conclusion to the episode. And, one that undoubtably had writer Rick Cleveland's personal touch. Say what you want about Alan Ball's writing skills, and about how the way he handles writing on a TV show breeds some inconsistency over an entire season, but there has to be something said for letting a writer have the freedom he gave these writers. For one of the first times this season, Alan Ball, I salute you.

Grade: B+

Memorable Quotes and Trivia
  • "Now I'm a terrorist? Billy McVeigh?" -Billy, in a pre-9/11 mention of what a terrorist is.
  • "This is a little tight. You're not breathing right. You're breathing from here when you should be breathing from here." -Kooky flower lady "But my lungs are here." -Ruth
  • Director Michael Engler has stuck around in TV directing, most recently directing episodes of 30 Rock, The Big C, and Parenthood. And an episode of The West Wing.
  • Although my dislike of the Krohner plotline has been well documented, I have yet to note that the actor playing Matthew Gilardi is played by Garrison Hershberger. You may recognize him as Mike Nelson from Twin Peaks, one of the jerky jock teenagers in season two.
Finally, the episode:

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