On Six Feet Under and Those Moments When Life and TV Collide

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Photo: HBO

We turn to our favorite television shows for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s because we need a laugh at the end of a long work day during which way too many people used the word webinar. Sometimes our spirits are desperate for a boost and the only thing that can boost them is hearing Tami Taylor say “y’all.” In the case of Game of Thrones, perhaps, it’s because we just want to see Ramsay Bolton finally get his comeuppance, since we all know that until there is justice for Reek and Sansa, there can be no peace.

But sometimes specific TV shows become therapeutic in more profound ways, by showing up at exactly the moment we need them most. I’m thinking about this today because, as the anniversary-happy internet reminds us, June 3 marks the 15th anniversary of the premiere of HBO’s Six Feet Under, the drama that introduced us to the Fisher family, their funeral home, and the notion that television can alert us, on a weekly basis, that every last one of us is mortal. (HBO2 is in the midst of running a marathon of all five seasons, so feel free to cancel your weekend plans.) While it sometimes got overshadowed by other HBO series of its era, most notably The Sopranos, Six Feet Under is still rightfully regarded as one of the most finely etched family dramas of TV’s so-called second Golden Age, and a show that felt extraordinarily personal to many people for a simple, obvious reason: We all lose loved ones. Eventually, we all must face death. Sometimes that even happened while we were watching the Fishers lose people and face death on Six Feet Under.

When the fifth and final season aired on HBO during the summer of 2005, my father was dying. He had pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that can go from bad to seriously awful rather quickly. At least that’s how it went for him. My dad was such an upbeat person and such a minimizer of the negative that I continued to believe he had weeks when in reality, he only had days, and then hours. 

On July 24, 2005, the Six Feet Under episode, “Singing for Our Lives,” aired. That’s the one in which the show’s principal Fisher, Nate (Peter Krause), has a brain embolism and collapses. (Yes, this is the one with the “Narm,” which, in a way, was the Hodor of 2005.) On July 26, 2005, my father died. On Sunday, July 31, 2005, we held a wake for him; the funeral was scheduled for the following Monday morning.

On that final Sunday night in July, with my eulogy written but not yet delivered, I had a lot on my mind. But I also, technically, had  time to watch the new episode of Six Feet Under, “Ecotone,” a gloriously messy heartbreak of a bottle episode where everyone gathers at the hospital following Nate’s collapse, and they — and we — wait to see if he’ll be okay. I don’t remember if I knew for a fact that Krause’s character would die in that episode or if I just strongly suspected it. All I know is I wrestled with whether it was appropriate to watch it under the circumstances of my actual life. I loved the show, and spending an hour with it would give me a break from feeling both nervous about my speech and shocked that my dad was gone. But it wasn’t going to be a break from my grief. In fact, it would be an invitation to lean even harder into it, an invitation I wasn’t sure I wanted to accept. 

Ultimately I chose to watch, and was glad that I did. The following Sunday, when the Fishers gathered for Nate’s funeral less than a week after my family had gathered for my dad’s, I wrestled again, and ultimately watched again. That episode and the remaining episodes of that season served as both an odd comfort and, more importantly, an outlet for my own emotional release.

I am extremely skilled at boxing up my emotions. Give me a feeling that’s connected to something real and upsetting that’s happened in my actual life, and I will put that feeling in a box and tuck it into the back corner of a shelf in my psyche faster than you can say Walking Psychological Container Store. But when I watch great TV — or see an amazing movie, or listen to a particularly meaningful song — that’s when my emotions leak out. Sometimes that’s because of the actual content of the art. When I cry during the closing montage of the final episode of Six Feet Under, yes, it’s because I love those characters, and my God, they’re all dying, and good Lord, they’re all dying while this Sia song is completely wrecking me. But when I cried during that montage the first time I saw it, in the summer of 2005, I know a lot of those tears were tears for my father that couldn’t find their way out until Six Feet Under unlocked them.

Our lives and the people in them are precious and real. They will always be more important to us than our favorite TV shows. But there are certain series that connect so deeply to our hearts and become so intertwined with our own personal experiences that they get braided directly into our existences. For you, memories of high school may be intertwined with memories of watching Gilmore Girls. A friendship may be defined by its whispered confidences and inside jokes, but also by the fact that it began because of a shared love of Twin Peaks.

There are a lot of shows like this for me, and Six Feet Under is certainly one of them. I loved that show for its boldness, for its macabre sense of humor (it pretty much had me from Claire stealing that foot in season one), for its consistently moving performances, and for its ability to capture the strange, surreality of this thing called life in ways that made my heart feel full.

But I will reserve a more special place for Six Feet Under, forever, because it helped me say good-bye to my dad.