reality tv

Is Now the Worst Time for Buried by the Bernards? Or Is It the Best Time?

Ryan Bernard and the rest of his family are fantastic, undeniable reality-TV personalities who just so happen to be surrounded by literal death. Photo: Netflix

Maybe this moment, almost a year into a pandemic that has killed nearly half a million Americans, is not the time for a silly, light-hearted lifestyle reality show about a family-run funeral home in Memphis, Tennessee. Particularly when there’s been so little shared recognition of the incredible grief experienced in this past year, Netflix’s new series Buried by the Bernards has the potential to feel like it’s in galactically bad taste.

In the opening episode, the matriarch of the Bernard family has a goofy reality-show fight with her granddaughter Deja about the best way to arrange flowers for a funeral service. Deja rolls her eyes and walks the wreaths from one side of the chapel to the other, while her grandmother scolds her. In the background, a body lies in an open casket in the middle of the room, face blurred and hands chastely crossed. It’s a pretty typical scene for Buried by the Bernards, which frequently has corpses in the background of its scenes, often with white handkerchiefs laid over their faces. Meanwhile in the foreground, the Bernard family bickers and teases one another. Debbie, the grandma, is in a perpetual power clash with her son Ryan. Deja and Raegan, the two granddaughters, alternate between frustration with their family, resignation, and distaste for the funeral business. Kevin, the loose-cannon uncle, laughs at his niece when she can’t handle the idea of taking the hearse out for a pick-up.

Buried by the Bernards is not a show that considers death with solemn, mournful silence. It barely considers death at all — there’s a later episode where a group of mortuary students comes to tour the funeral home, and one student asks Ryan Bernard how he handles being confronted with death all the time. Not only is it the first time this subject comes up, but it’s also typical of the show’s broader attitude, because puckish Uncle Kevin interrupts before Ryan can give any kind of thoughtful answer.

It was hard for me to shake off my sense of impropriety! It’s a fantastic premise for a sitcom, but I had a hard time moving past the presence of real corpses on the margins of this show, real families whose dead loved ones were sitting there as a backdrop to fun goofs. Someone died. Lots of people have died! It has been an especially brutal time for people of color, Black families like the Bernards who are disproportionately affected by this mass cataclysm. Are fun funeral-home high jinks really the right tone?

But then …

Maybe this moment, almost a year into a pandemic, is an astoundingly good time for a warm, generally loving, matter-of-fact and unafraid reality show about a family who runs a funeral home. The episodes were filmed almost entirely pre-COVID, so the pall of the overrun funeral home and the sadness of a Zoom memorial service have not yet arrived for the Bernards. It’s a little island of pre-pandemic normalcy, where the family can gather together to shoot a deliberately hilarious commercial advertising their low, low burial prices without thinking about how many families will be desperately in need of a way to save on caskets. (Uncle Kevin, as the beloved deceased, shoots out of his casket and demands the hearse driver take him to Bernards for a better price.)

It helps that the Bernards are just fantastic, undeniable reality-TV personalities — they come off as authentic people who truly care about one another, but they’re also larger than life in ways that make them gloriously watchable. The appeal is really in the family dynamic. The Bernards are palpably exasperated with one another, and they also come across as people who sincerely care about each other. But Debbie and Kevin are the standout stars. Some of the best moments of the season are when Debbie has breakfast with her friend Anne and they gossip about the family, or when Kevin takes a makeup class to learn more modern makeup techniques. The makeup is for dead bodies, to be clear. Raegan, laughing, apologizes to the model Kevin’s practicing on, because he smashes the brush heavily into the model’s face. “She’s alive!” Raegan scolds him.

There’s a sense that absent the funeral home element, Buried by the Bernards would be an easy and probably unremarkable reality-TV softball. They’re the kind of family a reality series could happily follow for years, creating gentle points of tension and reaping the reward until fame inevitably curdles some of them and the whole show becomes sour. With the funeral home as a backdrop, though, Buried by the Bernards has (please forgive me for this) a weirdly Shakespearean thing going on, a joking-in-the-cemetery sensibility that feels like stumbling onto a reality show set in the gravedigger scene from Hamlet. The rest of the reality-TV world is throwing baking competitions and sniping at each other in the middle of elaborate parties and declaring that they’re not here to make friends, and then there’s Debbie Bernard, teaching her granddaughters a lesson by making them rearrange all the display coffins. For every minute I was horrified, there was a minute immediately after where I laughed and then felt relieved.

It’s a relief to watch a reality show about a family that’s not particularly shaken by being surrounded by death. It’s a relief to watch them get mad at each other and have new babies and stumble their way through awkward conversations about dating, while standing next to funeral flowers. It may still be in bad taste; it’s tough to picture what a second season of this show could look like, one that has the Bernards burying COVID victims. And I have no idea how the families of deceased people feel about their loved ones appearing as set dressing for a reality show — this, more than anything else, is the one concern I have about the series that’s hard to set aside. Outside of that, though, I can’t deny that all the aghast feelings I had at the outset of Buried by the Bernards had been transmuted by the end of the series, changed from shock at the setting into reassurance that the Bernards do not find any of this shocking. So much of this year has been an exercise in laughing amid death. It’s nice to spend some time with a family who are really good at it.

Is It the Worst Time for Buried by the Bernards or the Best?