Media texts, practices & audiences
Six Feet Under, the heartbreaking and bold HBO drama series about a family that owns and runs a funeral home is repeatedly interrupted by abrupt fantasies that pop into the characters’ heads. Most of the time, these visions are a matter of what should happen as opposed to what has happened. It often shows what things should happen, what would have made life so much better, only if people, especially people we know, love and care for, didn’t die. But then they all do. In the HBO series in its pilot episode, Nathaniel died and at least one person died each week in a self-contained prologue to each episode, if not also during the body of the episode itself (Allen, 1992).
Death is one of the characters and realities in the drama, which is the same way as in the drama of every human life. The drama showed to be very intimate with death and so infused with it, that it proved an enormous success with HBO audiences as one of the most intriguing, if not bewildering, facts in television so far.
Like many great dramas, Six Feet Under has many qualities that are very obvious and some others that are difficult to pinpoint and identify. The scenes all come together in such a mercurial and addictive way that the show can easily be seen as the exact equivalent of its page turner book (Allen, 1992).
Somehow the characters were so believable that they can almost inevitably set people to mysteriously find a way to interlace what was happening with them in the course of the drama into their own bumpy and ever-changing existence. The appealing cast members drive home every obnoxious, unlikable and distasteful habit that people hate in themselves yet continually do or obsess about. These ranges from reoccurring thoughts of feeling bad or guilty about major decisions in life, struggling with inner self-acceptance, loving someone who doesn’t love you back, guilt because of infidelity, shame, indecision, apathy, selfishness, up to the utterly disappointing on-again, off-again relationships that somehow people just can’t break. The drama also touched and discussed darker subjects that are most of the time too taboo for many audiences such as rape, incest, murder, kidnapping, fatal illnesses and severe psychological disorders.
HBO’s programming is seen as a response to television viewers’ fears about death becoming higher up in their daily lives. HBO took an initiative which began with Six Feet Under ? a drama which setting is in and around a California funeral home to create itself an impression of a network unafraid and bold of taking chances by setting into air a controversial and contentious death-themed programming. The successive series has built upon its viewers the use of violence, sexuality, foul language, morbidity and death that offered viewers a continuing narrative about the realities of life. It can finally be argued that HBO’s Six Feet Under is a continuing narrative that is the equivalent to that of a public affairs program that facilitates an extended dialogue of the nature of death in the modern world.
The pilot episode of Six Feet Under proved and showed other television networks and audiences how a series of a normally horrid subject such as death can live a healthy and long life on a network television schedule. The drama actually forced its characters and the audiences as well, to stare death in the face. The series is viewed as a social test unfailing with cultivation examination and social learning theory, in this case as an effort to teach viewers about the realities and facts of life and death through mediated drama (Bok, 1998).
Still, to say that the show was purely only about death would not give the series a great deal of the credit it very well deserves. It was actually very groundbreaking, as it tackled about life in the midst of death. Not like other shows that bring back death on the screen, it used death to examine the issues about mortality itself. The show gave its viewers the chance to look at death and how people deal with it, how some people are not able to, and pretty much everything that our daily lives throw at us as we wait for our own exit.
The show Six Feet Under is a caricature deftly sketched? a cartoon in its best imaginative sense of death and sex and other matters about mortuary. It traffics in exaggeration and lampoon? a resolute distortion that helps us see the truth. But still, it is more than just another hip, smart, sure-fire hit show (Peyser, 2002). Beyond the belly laughs and heartbreaks with which audiences are run up and back down the emotional register and are then entertained, there is always a deliberate attempt to probe much deeper questions. What should people do when someone dies? What are the restrictions of love and grief? What are the dynamics of desire and memory, bodies and souls, flesh and faith?
The pilot episode began with an end, and so did all the succeeding episodes. In the very first, Nathaniel Fisher, the father and founder of Fisher ; Sons, dies when the new hearse he was driving is broad-sided by a bus. He was about to go fetch his son Nate who is coming home for the holidays from Seattle and who was having a vigorous and ecstatically anonymous sex with a fellow pilgrim in an airport broom closet while his father was colliding with the bus. Just like Shakespeare and the Book of Genesis, Alan Ball (screenplay writer) was equipped with the gift for getting death and sex, the good cry and the good laugh, the god-awful and godsend, the sublime and ridiculous, all in the same scene. Also, he loves his ghosts. The raucous soul of Nathaniel Fisher roamed at will through the episode since his demise, delivering up bouts of wry humor and wisdom; happily haunting the places and the people he loved (Peyser, 2002).
Ball recognizes that both the undertaker tendency to prettify’ death with the use of cosmetics and euphemisms for the sake of convenience and cost-efficiency are equally foolish efforts to get around rather than get through the difficult reality in the issue of mortality. Disguise and desertion are both denials. So is diversion (Peyser, 2002).
What Allan Ball so clearly wants to emphasize is that funerals are about the living and the dead? the talk and the traffic between them. In Six Feet Under, they continually confront one another. He lets them dwell in the same space, often the implausible “space” of the mortuary not because morbid curiosity but because in the real world and in the face of mortality we need to watch and wonder, stand and look, listen and remember. Alan Ball wants people to examine the difference and importance between the fashions and fundamentals in the business of death, seeing and realizing what is essential and what is accessory (Allen, 1992).
And it is time we do.
With the wearing away of religions as well as ethnic and social connections together with the practices and rituals they present to tackle mortality and bereavement, more and more people must reinvent from various traditions, the reality of the space between the deaths that happen and the deaths that matter. This is actually what we do funerals for. Funerals are not only done to dispose off the dead, but most importantly to bear witness to the dead people’s lives and times among the people they love to assert the difference their dying and living makes amongst relatives and community. Also, it provides a vehicle for the healthy expression of grief, agony, faith, hope and wonder. The worth of a funeral goes neither from how much we spend nor how little. Death in the family is an important event and not entirely an emotional, medical or religious one.
Allen, R. C. (1992) Audience-Oriented Criticism and Television. Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press. 14(1), 15-20.
Bok, S. (1998) Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment. MA, Addison-Wesley.
Peyser, M. (2002) Six feet under our skin. Newsweek. New York, New York University Press. 139(11), 4.