Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Christmas TV Episode #8: "Six Feet Under"

8.) "Six Feet Under" 1.1 Pilot (Watch it now.)

"Six Feet Under" is a show to be watched for its pacing and its performances. If the short story in fiction were to be translated into a visual medium, I don't think we'd get a cinematic vignette or a short film, we'd get the "Six Feet Under" pilot, which fits a lesser show's entire first season's worth of family dynamics and character excavation into about sixty minutes, has a beginning, a middle and an end, and somehow manages to feel complete in the process. This pilot is a singular thing. Very few pilots are this good. It effectively sets up its major conflicts and themes, not through plot points or expositional jibber-jabber, but by characterizing its players (the Fishers), developing a setting (Pasadena, Fisher & Sons Funeral Home), and then allowing those characters to move through that setting, each equipped with their own agendas and their own internal trepidations, and they keep bumping into each other in the worst kinds of ways. The ways families do. Dynamics are born and there you have them: The Fishers.

This pilot chronicles the death and funeral arrangements of patriarch Nathaniel Fisher, Sr., who is killed in a car accident at the beginning of the episode. It's Christmas Eve, and each of our characters, still unaware of the accident, are engaging in their very own patterns of telling behavior: Claire is smoking crystal meth with some bad characters in a yellow apartment, Nate is banging a woman he just met in a closet at the airport, David is in charge of that evening's viewing downstairs in the funeral parlor, and Ruth is in the kitchen cooking a pot roast. Here, the writers waste no time. We get concrete characterization right away. This is the type of behavior we're going to be experiencing all season long. These are the people we're dealing with. Each member of the family then has his or her own reaction to the news of their father's death. I won't give them away, but I will say that Frances Conroy's performance (as the mother, Ruth Fisher), in particular, will hurt you in places you didn't know you had.

Alan Ball (writer/creator/director) then takes us through this world, building credibility through the experiences of each character and how they're coping in the immediate aftermath of Nathaniel's death. Claire, still possibly tripping on Crystal, can no longer tell if she's just high or having a meltdown. Nate, who had initially come home from Seattle just for Christmas, is beginning to understand that he might not be leaving as soon as he'd hoped, and to reevaluate the reason he didn't go into the family business in the first place. Michael C. Hall gives a very powerful, controlled turn as David Fisher, a closeted homosexual and bonafide control freak who's trying to hold himself together, to hold the family together and the funeral home, and he's failing. Ruth comes clean about an affair she'd been having for years prior to Nathaniel's death and calls herself a whore while weeping into Nate's suit coat at the viewing (or wake). Meanwhile, Nathaniel, Sr. haunts each of them, and the show comes to life, not just as a novel take on the modern family and morticians, but as pure magical realism--a world where ghosts walk and talk and give us advice, and where it's as mundane to see your dead father smoking a cigarette on the hood of a hearse as it is to see a dog taking a shit on the sidewalk.

The show abandons the whole commercial/advertising angle after this episode, I think for the better, and you'll know what I'm talking about if you watch. Still, "Six Feet Under" continues and maintains that very quirky, fantastical edge throughout its five season run, an edge that sets it apart from most contemporary serialized dramas. "Six Feet Under" can be as morose as it is whimsical, and it tackles some pretty heavy themes like drug use, fatal illness, homosexuality and religion, depression, abortion, infidelity, psychological disorders, addiction, and, of course, death. Sometimes, the things we're seeing on the screen, we're not so sure we should be seeing, but that discomfort is part of the tension. I think the pilot, which takes place at Christmas and is vaguely Christmas-themed (though we're still stuck in Southern California), is, perhaps, the greatest episode of "Six Feet Under." There are some great ones, but this one, I think, just wins.

UP NEXT: "Hey! I would like a nice slice of Christmas Pam. Side of candy Pams. And perhaps some Pam chops. With mint..."

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