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'Six Feet Under': Tube Talk Gold

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It's hard to believe, watching the increasingly glib and farcical mess that is HBO's vampire drama True Blood, that series creator Alan Ball was also the brains behind what remains the network's subtlest, smartest and most emotionally resonant series to date.

Yes, we know it's a bold statement, and we're not questioning the groundbreaking, quasi-literary brilliance of The Sopranos and The Wire. But Ball's first foray into the small screen - following his Oscar win for penning American Beauty's screenplay - was one of the first dramas to really exploit the advantage TV has over film in terms of gradual, long-term character development.

The cast of 'Six Feet Under'

© Rex Features / HBO/Everett



Six Feet Under: Originally broadcast from June 3, 2001 to August 21, 2005

It's not hard to draw parallels between American Beauty and Ball's work here; both take a blackly comic, frequently morbid look at a dysfunctional suburban family. But where Beauty seemed to hold its characters at scornful arm's length, Six Feet Under was written with a combination of compassion and wit that made the Fishers consistently relatable.

The show's pilot sees eldest son and black sheep of the family Nate (Peter Krause) returning home for Christmas just as his father Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) is killed in a bus crash. The aftermath forces Nate and the rest of his emotionally estranged kin - comprised of closeted brother David (Michael C Hall), rebellious teenage sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose) and highly-strung mother Ruth (Frances Conroy) - to mend their variously fractured relationships, as the two brothers take over the running of family funeral home Fisher & Sons.



The Fishers' family dynamics alone would have provided more than enough fodder for five seasons. The brothers' relationship is initially hostile thanks to years of pent-up resentment, but Krause and Hall's chemistry crackled from the get-go.

Their relationship, from tentative bridge-building in season one through to increasingly leaning on each other throughout the next four, remained one of the show's most consistently touching.



Ambrose's Claire begins the series as something of a stereotypical TV teen - alienated from her entire family, making unfortunate dating choices and stealing the odd body part from a corpse - but her grounded, wry turn elevates her far above this category.

She became a shade less likeable, and perhaps a shade less well-written, when she went away to art college and dabbled variously with lesbianism, collages and being a slightly pretentious idiot, but the criminally underrated Ambrose was never less than fascinating to watch.



The first season, which saw the emotionally repressed David struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, deservedly earned Hall an Emmy nod. He's since gone on to far more widespread success with his role as America's favourite secret serial killer on Dexter, but his work on that show has rarely come close to the stunning nuance he achieved on Six Feet Under.

Even after David's agonising, self-destructive struggle was somewhat resolved, Hall continued to tease out new layers of complexity in his relationship with his family, with the church, and with on-off boyfriend Keith (Matthew St Patrick).



On the subject of fractious romantic relationships, Nate's initially flippant involvement with the troubled, razor-sharp Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) snowballed into one of the most compelling, uncomfortably raw love stories ever seen on screen.

It was clear that they genuinely loved each other, but equally clear that their relationship was built more on dysfunction than trust, and every beat of its gradual, inevitable failure felt painfully plausible.



But it's easy to forget, what with all the emotional upheaval and ceaseless death, just how funny Six Feet Under was. In fact, the ceaseless death was as frequently the source of comedy as it was of tragedy - each episode began with a death, whose family would usually end up enlisting the services of Fisher & Sons.

The offings ranged from mundane (cancer, drug overdose) to poignant (a woman dies alone in her flat and isn't discovered for weeks) to outlandish (bread mixer bloke, sunroof lady) to just plain hilarious (see below).



And the Fishers themselves got plenty of chances to make you laugh in between making you cry repeatedly. Take the scene below, in which Nate's accidentally taken an Ecstasy tablet which David left in a bottle of aspirin (as you do), and spends an already-awkward family dinner absolutely stonked out of his eyeballs. Fun times.



As is the case for just about any really iconic drama, Six Feet Under succeeded on the strength of its seamless blend of comedy with shattering tragedy. If it has a message, it's that death doesn't exist in a vacuum - it's part of everyday life, and while that's clearly more the case for a family of funeral directors than for the average Joe, the fact is a universal one.

Final seasons became too dark for some viewers to take, with more than one major player biting it, but anything else would feel dishonest for a show that never did anything but face death head-on, right up to its rightfully-adored series finale.



Are you a fan of Six Feet Under? Do you reckon it's HBO's best? Let us know below!
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