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aughts nostalgia

Why Isn’t There a Successor to Six Feet Under?

When James Gandolfini died last month, dozens of his obituaries acknowledged that his performance as Tony Soprano ushered in an era of antiheroes: Vic Mackey, Don Draper, Walter White, maybe even Stringer Bell. So many shows were and are in some sense spiritual successors to The Sopranos.

And I like The Sopranos just fine. But when it was airing, it was not my favorite HBO show, nor was it the show I hoped I'd see echoes of for years to come. That show, the show I wanted more of, the show I hoped people would imitate and reappropriate or at least acknowledge, was Six Feet Under. Give me family dramas, give me sob stories, give me a show that takes teen girls as seriously as it takes their parents. I want sex and mystery and growth! (In life as in television, you guys.) I'm still looking for the show that picked up where SFU left off.

One problem is that there aren't that many family dramas, period. Even without the overlap of Peter Krause, I'd be inclined to nominate Parenthood as a possible SFU descendant: Multigenerational family, no bad guys or good guys, sane attitudes about abortion. But everyone on Parenthood is exactly how they seem, while the characters of Six Feet Under very rarely were: Brenda (Rachel Griffiths, who can be seen in tonight's new NBC show, Camp) seemed like an arson-adjacent sex wizard early on, but she turned out to be more of a lonely, cruel genius who'd never really be able to accept love. Nate was kind of the hero, kind of the fuck-up. Ruth seemed sort of dotty sometimes, sort of disconnected — but her interior life was just as rich and her emotions just as powerful as anyone else's.

We're also in an era of extremely proactive characters: Things don't happen to Olivia Pope, Olivia Pope happens to things. Don Draper might be a mess, but he'll never be a helpless mess. Jackie on Nurse Jackie, Sarah on Orphan Black — people are going out and getting theirs. But the Fisher family on SFU was not really a family of doers. The whole show was about the parts of life that just happen, the dying part, the shocking and heartbreaking part, the part you can't do anything about. I guess that's not really on-trend right now.

The way shows imitate The Sopranos is not by being about organized crime; it's by being about a rotting sense of self and the failures of the American patriarchy. So a show imitating Six Feet Under shouldn't be set in a funeral home. But it should be about how hard it is to know what in life is important. Sometimes we imagine that proximity to death helps us understand what "really" matters — but that is usually not the case. Instead, what SFU argued pretty successfully was that constant proximity to death and suffering makes it pretty hard to tell the major issues from the minor ones, because what difference does the distinction make, really, once you're burying your dead wife under a tree? (Or once that's you being lowered into the ground, ashes to ashes, etc.?) Everything is stupid, nothing is worth caring about! Although we all have these snapshot memories of instances that seemed totally insignificant at the time, and yet now, upon someone's death, those moments seem like the only thing that ever mattered. Maybe everything is worth caring about, and nothing is stupid!

But there isn't a show doing that. It's hard to be about a lot of things, and that's something even SFU struggled with: How much time did we really need to spend on, say, Rico's wife Vanessa's stories? Did Ruth's love interests need so much screen time? Sometimes I remember Brenda's weird foray into sex work and shudder. But I wish there were a show biting off that much at a time right now, trying mightily to bounce between coming-out stories and drug-abuse stories and stories about the thrill of new romance and the agony of expired significance. Are parents terrible, or are parents good? That's a lot to take on, I guess.

I'm getting pretty tired of antihero sagas, the stories of tough guys who try to hide their soft sides and the sorry women who love them. I know I'm still living in a post–Tony Soprano world. But how nice would it be, every once in a while, to at least be able to visit a post–Claire Fisher one?

Photo: HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection