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Last Rites for HBO's 'Six Feet Under'


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The final episode of the HBO series "Six Feet Under" airs on Sunday. For four years it's been one of television's most acclaimed programs. Andrew Wallenstein writes about TV for DAY TO DAY. Here he is with an examination of the legacy of "Six Feet Under."

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To me, the end of "Six Feet Under" feels like a death in the family.

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WALLENSTEIN: That haunting melody is the series' opening sequence, easily the most stunning of its kind on TV. It was as if the show wanted to signal from minute one that its provocative artistry would set it apart from the rest of the media. When the show was first introduced by Alan Ball, screenwriter of the Oscar-winning film "American Beauty," its premise alone made it stand out. But setting a dysfunctional family drama in a funeral home amounts to more mere originality. Ball was confronting death itself, perhaps one of American culture's last remaining taboos. Television, in particular, has never been keen on something as highfalutin as characters struggling with their own mortality.

But to describe "Six Feet Under" as just scenes from the death factory--that sells the show short. Even if the show's Fisher family was in the business of washing cars instead of embalming bodies, they would still be gripping. That's because the writers have crafted strong characters that manage to blend humor with heartfelt poignancy. Here's a scene featuring one of the cast's real standouts, Michael C. Hall as middle son David Fisher. He's sharing a childhood memory.

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Mr. MICHAEL C. HALL: (As David Fisher) I don't know. I was in seventh grade, I think. Nate was probably a junior in high school. And he had started that new wave band with Sam Hoviak and Tom Wheeler. Do you remember?

Unidentified Character #1: I do.

Mr. HALL: (As David Fisher) And he had the worst hair, I mean, like, really big, bad '80s hair with all this spray and lacquer in it. And I was sitting next to him at dinner, and I saw something move, and it was a spider.

Unidentified Character #2: No.

Mr. HALL: (As David Fisher) It had spun a web in his hair, I swear.

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Unidentified Character #3: You could see it.

WALLENSTEIN: Great as "Six Feet Under" was, it was never as popular as other memorable HBO shows, like "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City." Many found the show kind of pretentious and overwrought. Its self-absorbed characters were kind of whiny at times. But the attribute that may have diminished its popularity was actually its greatest strength. The characters of "Six Feet Under" could be miserable and difficult, but that leant them a psychological realism you will find nowhere else on television.

This polarizing quality was probably most epitomized by Nate, the oldest child in the Fisher clan and perhaps its most troubled. Actor Peter Krause played the character's narcissist streak and existential brooding so well that many viewers were probably disgusted when Nate broke up with his wife from his hospital bed earlier this season. But when Nate suddenly died, the aftermath was as wrenching as if the most beloved character had passed away, and I think it's because, love him or hate him, he felt real, as did the whole show.

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CHADWICK: Andrew Wallenstein writes about television for DAY TO DAY. He's also an editor for The Hollywood Reporter.

DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.