When it was originally on: 2001-2005
Original network: HBO
Where you can stream it now: HBO or Amazon (included with a regular Prime membership, no HBO add-on required!)
Had I seen it before: No.
What IMDb says: A chronicle of the lives of a dysfunctional family who run an independent funeral home in Los Angeles.
Why I picked it: Six Feet Under is a relatively early entry in terms of HBO original content. It came out in 2001, whereas the first HBO original series came out in 1997. Shows that come out while new outlets are still trying to figure out what their brand is will never cease to fascinate me. (Stay tuned for the Orange is the New Black pilot review!)
Six Feet Under seems like a show that is respected, but not particularly remembered. Unlike The Sopranos or The Wire, it seems to have been eclipsed by some of HBO’s more recent offerings. Tell someone to name an HBO original series, and my guess is they’ll come up with 4-5 before they remember Six Feet Under was a thing. How will the pilot hold up 19 years later? Is this one of those of-its-time shows that lost its appeal as more and more premium cable/streaming shows burst onto the scene?
What I liked: I love how this pilot had something to say. There’s a fundamental tension between the need for emotional catharsis and the need to appear strong, and how those two needs will forever be clashing with each other. We see each character struggling with it internally, and we also see different characters clashing with each other over it. The pilot seems to end on a note of “it’s okay to have feelings. It’s okay to let other people have feelings. It’s okay if their feelings don’t look like yours.” It uses the context of grief to drive this point home, but it’s a great message in all aspects of life. Because it ends on such great note of thematic satisfaction, it ends up feeling more like a stand alone movie than a television pilot.
It also does a great job of showing the contrast between all the different members of this family. Everyone has made different choices for different reasons, and yet I still feel like I can understand and sympathize with everyone. It makes sense that Nate wouldn’t want to be surrounded by death all the time. It makes sense that David and Claire would hold a grudge. There’s so much potential for conflict and drama within this family yet no one feels like a villain.
To add yet another layer of tension and conflict, this family will presumably go on to help other families through their bereavement. In the pilot, we get the impression that death has always been professional rather than personal for this family. Now, we’re going to see them struggle to maintain that professionalism when they can relate to the grieving families they work with in new ways. Will Nate’s presence change that dynamic? It should be interesting to see.
What I didn’t like: The. Dumb. Commercials.
I shit you not, this episode is routinely interrupted by various goofy commercials for funeral-related products. Hearses. Embalming fluid. Wound filler. And DAMN they are annoying. Perhaps they are a relic of a time when ad-free television was still so novel that poking fun at commercial interruptions seemed like a good idea. Now that commercial-free television makes up at least 90% of my viewing time, these just annoyed the shit out of me. I’m not sure if they stuck with these throughout the series run or not, but I sure hope they didn’t.
Even if we pretend the fake commercials weren’t there, Six Feet Under still never felt 100% confident in the tone they were going for. There’s the irreverent embalmer. There’s the fact that Claire gets super high before finding out she has to go to the morgue because her dad died. There’s the weird cutaways to fantasy sequences where dead people are alive. I spent most of the show wondering. . . was I supposed to be laughing? Was it really trying to be a true comedy, or was it simply trying to keep its death-focused premise from killing the vibe? Perhaps the humor helps make the more serious scenes more poignant, but I can’t say I ever found it funny. The dumb commercials only make this problem even worse. (Have I told you how much I hate the commercials? I really hate them.)
I also wish they could’ve waited 10-15 minutes longer kill the dad. When the entire episode is spent dealing with a sudden tragedy, we don’t really get a great sense of what business-as-usual looks like for these characters. If we could’ve seen how integral Dad was to this whole operation, maybe a tender moment or two with his wife or children, we could’ve felt more of the pain that the other characters feel when he’s suddenly killed. Instead, they end up relying on other weird stylistic choices to tell us what kinds of relationships everyone else had with him, and that didn’t always work for me.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Yes. I’m still not sure if I really like it, but I am most definitely intrigued by it. Any of the kinks in the pilot are things that could easily be ironed out within the next few episodes, and I’m curious to see if it that does indeed happen.