In art, the two most used taboos to produce attraction from morbid, regardless of time, representation or medium, are sex and death. It is the latter that we will talk about, and how a television product used the concept to portray how difficult it is to hold onto moments and then let them go.
In the same era that HBO aired The Sopranos, The Wire, Oz and Deadwood, a family melodrama injected with a heavy dose of black comedy slipped away. Six Feet Under managed to explain the maturity and wilting of the tree of life through an American family. The Fishers, who own a funeral home, star in a story in which death is as normalized as an American breakfast. Yes, it is a dysfunctional family, but all families are dysfunctional if we look at them closely.
When speaking of a funeral family, a gothic fantasy world like that of Los Locos Adams comes to mind, but the precipitous victories and hapless failures of the Fishers draw the opposite, a family full of defects, far from being normal but hardly more human, nothing foreign to our reality.
The starting point of the story is the business, in this funeral case, and the legacy of a patriarch with guarded secrets, something that HBO recently managed to repeat successfully with Succession.
Each of the chapters begins with a death, and the plot of the chapter is built around the Fisher around the duel, funeral arrangements, the relationship with the hurt and how the latter deal with the game, and occasionally some mystery behind the event. Or quite the opposite, of the Fisher’s indifference to what is a normal day for them. The deceased are usually (almost always) episodic characters and external to the family, and the melodrama of the plot arcs does not depend exclusively on the death. Of course, the game of guessing in each prologue, who will die and how, is an extra prize, reminiscent of classic detective series like Columbo.
Alan Ball, the creator of the show, is a hero with every risk he takes, experimenting with structure and narrative. We constantly see situations show up only in the heads of the characters, their desires and frustrations are very well expressed without using words; we also see imaginary conversations with the deceased, and the pilot chapter shows before each commercial break, a parodic and fictional advertisement for funeral makeup. All this surrealism brings gloomy humor, but it also works as a door to get into the scandalous psyche of funeral homes. Even pantomimic dream sequences differentiate his behavior from his real emotions.
Seeing the series these days, where death is increasingly present but never easier to deal with, is a therapeutic experience, since it teaches us that an emotionally damaged society does not have to become a desensitized society. Every loss deserves to be mourned and suffered.
In the cast we have names like Richard Jenkins, who shone more than ever in recent years in a variety of award-winning films and roles; also Frances Conroy and Michael C. Hall who would later star in recognized series such as American Horror Story and Dexter respectively.
Among the secondary and guests there are not only big names like Patricia Clarkson and Kathy Bates (who also directs some chapters), appearing stars “before they were famous” such as Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jenna Fischer, Josh Radnor, and a special mention to Rainn Wilson, who won an Emmy for his participation, and played a character that clearly served as the foundation for building his defining role in The Office. Interestingly, in the finale of Transparent, another brilliant and similar show created by Joey Soloway, an SFU producer, Wilson repeats his role, tying both products into the same universe.
If it is usually a complaint how unrealistic so much death is in a series, in SFU the unrealistic is that there are none. It is ironic to the extreme that the family lives from the tragedy and this enriches how the characters define themselves by their mistakes, being easier to empathize.
Greed, envy, ambition, cowardice, pride; aspects that every human presents but never admits, but in SFU we live them in the third person with the Fisher who hide their redemption between misery and misfortune. We hate them, we understand them, we forgive them, and then we hate them again. The series is about us.
Each event in the five seasons has an irreversible impact on the characters, none is the same as the previous chapter and this evolution, let’s call it corrupt or grow, is how human beings function in their day-to-day lives. For this reason, not everyone has a guaranteed happy ending. The hero may die, the couple may break up, the child may not achieve his dreams, the father may not forgive the son.
These sudden, non-avoidable reality snapshots don’t make the show dark or depressing in the morning. As one of the characters says, people have to die to make life important. There is a very clear moral, to appreciate the present with all its problems, because in the end even the bad times are missed and there is no way to stop time. “You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.”
It is very important to mention that SFU is remembered above any attribute, for its last chapter. The last six minutes of SFU, possibly the most beautiful six minutes in the history of television, with the emotional impact of a sequence to the rhythm of Sia’s Breath Me, we discover that changes are inevitable, that roads are built during the walk and that for better or for worse, nothing ever comes out supposed.
Well, the message of a series that deals with death can be as simple as: this is life.
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