There's a custom in every culture that compels people to give those who have departed this life a decent memorial. It's called a "good send-off" by some Irish Americans, and depending on your religion and level of devotion to the deceased, it can include a lavish funeral, a raucous wake or a costly marble monument. A good send off can ease the pain of the survivors and help usher those we have lost into the next world.
It's been ten years since my beloved favorite TV series went to that great dusty DVD bin in the sky. Ten Years. And in all that time I have never once written a memorial post or given homage. Not so much as a brief one line nod, status update or tweet. I've written over 300 posts about television over the years, but I failed to use the Flaming Nose to give Six Feet Under a good send-off because I was afraid I couldn't do it justice. Now, when I watch old episodes on HBO, I'm haunted by the ghosts of this series for my failure to act. Here then, is my final re-cap for one of the best TV series ever created. I'm ready now. And I'd like to continue to watch the repeats without guilt.
Six Feet Under accomplished two things that are as rare as rain in Southern California. It brought an extraordinary level of dark humor to the verboten topic of death. And it humanized life in Los Angeles by creating characters who were the antithesis of the bubble headed blonds on the SNL skit The Californians. Six Feet showed us that the people of Los Angeles are more than freeway interchanges, hair color or the beach. It got that underneath the relentlessly sunny skies, things could be dark and terrifying and violent. That people could go crazy from grief. But also, that at the end of the day, the people in the City of Angels are also artistic, complex and immensely kind. And this city, perched at the edge of a continent, continuously changing and renewed, trapped by concrete and trampled by a billion cars....is actually beautiful. It took a genius like Alan Ball to show us what no other television series would dare to see.
There are dozens of dark humor sayings designed to keep a freak-out level of fear away from conversations about death. "There's a toe tag in everyone's future". "No one here gets out alive". "You can't take it with you". "May you be in heaven a minute before the devil knows your dead". Over 63 episodes and four years (2001-2005), Six Feet Under gave us wit and wisdom about death, through the eyes of the amazing Fisher family and their funeral parlor in the heart of L.A. Each episode started with a "cold open" showing some random citizen of Los Angeles. meeting their demise, often in a horrifying way. In the pilot episode, the unlucky victim is Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins), who thankfully stays around as a sardonic ghost for the remainder of the series. He offers his unflinching "tell it like it is" take on life from the great beyond, to befuddled family members who mostly ignore but occasionally heed his advice.
Following are my "Best Moment" lists for the cold opens, the cast and the individual episodes. For anybody out there who has never watched Six Feet Under and who wants to binge...sorry, there will be some spoilers.
Best Six Feet Opening Deaths
- A devout fundamentalist Christian is at a stop light, when a mesh covered truckload of helium filled life size blow-up sex dolls (only in L.A.) breaks loose and the naked dolls go floating into the sky. Church lady sees this and thinks it's the "rapture". She goes running into traffic and boom, that's it for her.
- An older woman on a cell phone walks into her back yard and is struck by falling debris from an aircraft.
- A guy's car runs off the road in one of the many remote canyons in this sprawling metropolis, and he dies in the crash. But his car and body aren't discovered for many years (not likely to happen in a city like New York ladies and gents.)
- A runner on a path in Griffith Park is devoured by a mountain lion.
Most of the opens were based on real life events, by the way. There is no shortage of creative ways to kick the bucket in Los Angeles.
Favorite characters (all of them really...not one actor on this series ever hit a false note and that includes the guest stars)
- Ruth Fisher (Francis Conroy): The matriarch. Emotional, slightly addled, fiercely in love with her children. Also one of the most beautiful middle aged actresses ever on TV.
- Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins): Funny, real, the "voice of reason" dispensing advice from the spirit world. Nobody will ever say "buddy boy" better than he.
- Nate Fisher: Eldest son, California organic through and through. Both compassionate and cruel, he was the most human of them all. Also sexy as hell in that So Cal boy kind of way.
- David Fisher: (Michael C. Hall) Ground breaking gay character along with his partner Keith (Mathew St. Patrick). Tightly wound, and at turns hilarious or heart breaking. The fantasy scene in the final episode where he plays a stoned surfer in the back of a van shows the immense acting chops that this actor brought to some of his roles post Six Feet in "Dexter".
- Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose): The most extraordinary depiction of a high school and college age young person ever to grace the air waves. Gorgeous without being cookie cutter beautiful, appealing on every level. Her "high as a kite" scenes (yes, recreational drugs formed an important sub-text in this series, it wasn't all just about formaldehyde) were funny and terrifying. I sometimes fantasize that Alan Ball based Claire on a beloved younger red haired sister in real life.
- "Rico" Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez): The only funeral parlor partner not related to the Fishers, Rico brought a sense of reality to a program set in L.A. His struggle for acceptance, problems with his wife, passionate love for his kids. Rodriguez is a wonderful actor and his normalcy meshed perfectly with the off the charts weird of the Fishers. Los Angeles is and always has been remarkably diverse, and Rico's presence (along with St. Patrick) kept Six Feet from being about another lily white privileged family.
- Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffith): Brilliant, witty, over privileged, polarizing sex addict Brenda. Only her brother Billy (Jeremy Sisto) could ever really understand her thanks to their childhood escapades in a best selling children's book. Love her or hate her, this series would not be as compelling without Ms. Chenowith. Brenda the monster and Brenda the savior made every episode she was in a roller coaster.
- Lisa Fisher (Lili Taylor): The most passive-aggressive character ever created for TV. See the daughter and peanut butter allergy scene as proof. Poor Nate, that he would have to be married to both Lisa and Brenda in one series. No wonder he would take off running from time to time.
- George Sibley (James Cromwell): Superb character actor Cromwell played Ruth's second husband as a scientist with mental health issues and a penchant for building bomb shelters in the basement. He has an amazing scene with Jeremy Sisto at a family party in one episode. They share a beer on the front steps and commiserate being the craziest among a family of crazies.
- Amazing guest stars: Patricia Clarkson as Ruth's artistic hippie sister Sarah, Kathy Bates as Ruth's friend Bettina, Peter Macdissi as Claire's bi-sexual driven "Euro-trash" Cal Arts professor, Joanna Cassidy as the psychiatrist mother of Brenda and Billy. Six Feet Under had the finest acting this side of a Woody Allen movie.
- Ruth Fisher is getting married again and her rebellious daughter Claire is the only one to acknowledge and support her mom before the ceremony. She gives Ruth the customary "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue".
- Ruth, her sister Sarah and a few of their pals sing a beautiful a Capella version of "Calling all Angels" around the kitchen table as they memorialize a lost friend.
- Nate discovered how his first wife Lisa really died while at the home of Lisa's sister.
- Nate gives his organic, all-natural wife Lisa the "green burial" she always wanted. In this heart wrenching moment, it looks like he has placed the grave on the hill under the tree that forms the opening credits logo for the series.
- David Fisher is car jacked and terrorized by a maniac in a hoodie on the mean streets of L.A.
- Brenda and Billy Chenowith join their brilliant and bat shit crazy mom in a Century City high rise after their father has passed. His ashes end up being tossed from the window so he can end up on the streets he frequented and loved. Probably the most "L.A" moment in a series that was chock full of them.
- The entire episode for the series finale ("Everyone's Waiting") which is widely considered one of the best "send offs" for a series in television history. And if you can watch it without shredding at least one box of tissues, You Are Not Human. The Sia song "Breath Me" is worth a bucket of tears all by itself.
Before I lay this series to rest, I have to give a final shout-out to the magnificent and always spot-on fusion of popular music and fantasy fueled show tunes that formed a core component of the show. When everyone flipped their wig this year over Mad Men's fantasy dance and death scene for founder Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) all I could think was that Six Feet Under did it ten years earlier and in nearly every episode with better music. If you're planning to binge watch Six Feet Under again (and I surely hope you do), please also take the time to download some of the music and soundtracks which include artists such as Nina Simone, Phoenix, Death Cab for Cutie, Radiohead, Coldplay and the earlier mentioned Sia.
Farewell Six Feet Under. You are gone but never forgotten. Thank you Alan Ball. Can you please stop haunting me now?