Monday, April 20, 2015

Six Feet Under: The Cruelest Show Ever Made

Well hello there, it's been a while hasn't it? Well, the reason for my absence is that not only is my schedule slammed; but apparently I had to watch "Six Feet Under" to gain a better understanding on life, which I think is preposterous. Time and time again the show popped up on "best of" lists and I decided to give it a shot. After the first season, being unimpressed, I only heard rave things about the finale, so I stuck it out another four seasons and voila! Today I finished! I could cry from happiness.

In order to better serve my arrogant whims, I have decided to make a detailed description on my reactions to the series as a whole and thus will be SPOILING every last facet of the show which means that if you're read past *this*, you're probably going to get angry if you wanted it all to be a surprise...then again, you're just doing it to yourself at this point.

"Six Feet Under" concerns a family of undertakers and their dealings with life and death. Yes, it's kind of easy to shrug off the entire show and its complexities as such; but then again with such an ambitious goal, it can seem that I can do nothing better than just shrug it off. It's nonsense.

I made the running joke while I was watching the show about retitling it "Assholes Who Cry All the Time" or "Getting Bad News on a Phone Call" or even "People Who Cheat on People and then Get Angry When They're Cheated On"; but I actually think the best retitling the show could undergo is "The Dysfunctional Red Headed Stepchildren" because by all means that's what's going on here.

Now before I go any further, I should give the show its dues; it's trying to be realism. It's trying to show that life is a bitch; but it can also be painfully beautiful. Just flashback to the moment in "American Beauty" when Jane and Ricky and watching a plastic bag float around on the screen. That is beauty. That is powerful; but Alan Ball seems to have stretched himself to his limits because he attempts to inject that beauty in everyday life into a barrage of unsightly characters who always make the worst decisions, have the worst things happen to them, and deal with each other in the worst possible ways.

A brainchild of Ball's, "Six Feet Under" was a critical success on its release and has never let up since. It remains one of the most loved shows of all times and consistently ranks in with the best of the best and all I can do is just be all like...."but why?"

Here, I've complied a list of what I thought were the show's most heinous faults as well as trying to give credit where deserved.

The Gays

"Six Feet Under" was one of the first places on television you could spot a gay couple, and they weren't just gay, they were biracial which is a plus for diversity. Still, the arc of the couple plows through betrayal after betrayal and their relationship is seen in a constant state of contention. They fight, physically sometimes and often envelop other people into bizarre menage a trois and the viewer is still supposed to care for them. They are stripped of their humanity time after time as they scream and fight with each other, having anonymous sex in bathrooms and sometimes even going beyond their orientation for a nice screw. Sex is used as a weapon, as a deal-breaker, as a casual state of affairs. In the last seasons they are seen becoming even more casual with the idea of each other getting blowjobs from strange men and seeking retributions through orgasms. It's almost revolting what happens.

But there is a moment when it seems to take a breath. When David (Michael C. Hall) tells Keith (Matthew St. Patrick) that he wants to become monogamous and the very next scene has David screwing a man in bed while Keith is away on a job. Ah, romance.

Not only do they cheat and does the show deny them their nuances, the show makes sure that plenty of trauma goes around for everyone (I've warned before, but I'll warn again MAJOR SPOILERS!). One long story arc has David picking up a hitchhiker who steals the car and mentally tortures David before letting him go. The ghost of the hitchhiker follows David the rest of the show, even to the point where it becomes ridiculous. After Nate dies in the final episodes of the show, David can't cope with the death of his brother because he keeps hallucinating the man wearing a red hoody trying to sneak up and kill him. It's only a confrontation in a dream that allows David to have release and after a season and a half of build up, it's actually not that rewarding that it can all be solved with a hug. That's just insulting.

While it is nice to have gay representation in the show, it's almost like the writing is too committed to portraying these people as flawed that it doesn't bother to give them any redeeming qualities. David and Keith eventually adopt children and the two kids they end up with have a troubled past. Although we see one of them pull a knife of Keith it's only a few sweet episodes later that he's speaking kindly and "yes ma'am-ing". That kind of character development doesn't happen overnight.

The Torture

In the show's first season, it seemed like it was David's show. After all, a complex, troubled, emotionally unstable gay man? That's drama, right? Well, I guess not because after that the show shifted to Nate (Peter Krause) and he became the shining star of the piece ever since...which is really annoying. His story arc is nothing is not absolutely twisted and vile.

On the day that his father is killed, Nate hooks us with Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) and then starts the whirlwind of their relationship. They start seriously dating but Brenda randomly turns into a nymphomaniac and a drug addict and after one too many handjobs to strange men, she leaves to find herself while Nate is left behind with a brain condition that means it could be his time to go any moment.

In walks Lisa, the walking plot twist. Played by overly cheerful Lili Taylor, this girl is from Nate's past and she is pregnant with his child. Oops. Well, I guess while Brenda is off finding herself, Nate marries Lisa and they start having sex problems. Lovely.

But Brenda has to show back up and naturally the show does the only logical thing it can do: kills Lisa. After Nate reels from the death—and he does so for a good seasons if not two—he starts casually having sex with Brenda again while she's in the best relationship of her life. She was dating this adorable French horn player and he was into kinky sex, but their relationship was so healthy and they were going to have kids together. In walks Nate—who by this time in the show has been degraded to a crying mess of emotions—and you can say bye-bye to French horn, dude; because Nate is so much more attractive as a mentally unstable character dealing with the loss of his first wife. Wow, hot.

Brenda and Nate get married and want to have a child and this is where it gets really fucked up. Nate meets his step-father's daughter (it's complicated) and the glances from each other indicate that this is going to go somewhere. So while Brenda is cooped up, pregnant with his child, he's out screwing a Quaker.

This isn't even the coup de gras, the best moment comes when Nate finds out that Lisa has cheated on him with her brother-in-law. When he confronts the man about it, the cheater blows his head off right in front of Nate...the very next scene has Nate going home and telling Brenda that they should start a family together and get married.

Pardon me but what. the. fuck? Mind you he's still covered with his brother-in-law's blood!!!!!! Can you explain to me why it is acceptable to put a character through this much torture just to get some sort of sick, "life is hard" altruistic nonsense out of it. It is insultingly bad.

Nate isn't the only character whose narrative arc is far from satisfying or pleasant. Ruth (Frances Conroy) is another abused character. It's her husband's death that starts the show rolling and she never really recovers completely from the loss. Although she bounces from partner to partner, eventually she becomes a catatonic mess and shuts down completely, only finding comfort in the fact that Nate was happy after screwing his step-sister right before blood hemorrhaged into his brain.

Ruth has a bizarre stream of lovers from Russian mafia florists to hairdressers to George (James Cromwell). She meets George when she cries into his chest for no apparent reason—none that I can remember anyway—and then the two fall in love. George is a little anal about a few things and he has quite a past. Ruth gets pushed into hysterics time and time again because she wants to know all of his secrets. Then one day, the writers decided that George should go crazy. That's right. Crazy. He loses his mind and builds a Y2K-like bomb shelter and stocks up on everything, haunted by the ghost of his mother who overdosed while holding his hand. Geez! Does anyone in this show not have an entirely screwed-up backstory? Anyway, George is treated with electro shock therapy and Ruth turns into an angry bitch while caring for him, eventually separating from him and turning into a mess upon the death of Nate.

She is often seen clutching her chest, sitting catatonically, or proclaiming that she wished she was dead. No actor she be put through what she was.

This isn't a show like "The Killing", which I greatly enjoyed, that revels in the depressive state of its characters. No, this show is cruel for 'life's sake' whatever that might be. It is so mean and so bitter, that the only reaction I feel appropriate is a sad shaking of the head.

The Sex/The Comedy

It might be a shocker to you, but "Six Feet Under" is supposed to be funny. Not ironically funny; but genuinely funny, like sit-com funny but without all the laugh tracks. It's not even comically (in the most traditional definition) funny—that is, ending with a wedding and for this we look at Brenda.

This character's arc goes as follows: she hooks up with Nate at an airport and then sticks around for emotional support, i.e. because she has a vagina. Nate uses Brenda like a refueling station for whenever he's feeling depleted and this isn't even the worst of it. As Brenda comes into her own as a character, the writers have her become a sex addict and she fools around and then disappears, showing up after the death of Lisa.

Once married to Nate, things go downhill fast because Nate isn't interested in her anymore and goes off with his step-sister. I'm not exactly sure what about this is funny or maybe it's just too that makes it funny. As stated before, these characters suffer such traumas time after time that I begin to wonder what was so funny about the show. I think that I only laughed twice through five seasons, this does not constitute as a comedy.

Yet the comedy is not alone in the "light-hearted" approach, because sex is treated with lack of care as well and here I have to re-title the series "Assholes Who Cheat". There is not one main character, besides Claire (who rarely has a committed relationship) that does not sleep with someone else. Brenda, Nate, Ruth, Nate again, Brenda again, Rico, Brenda's parents, Nate again, David, Keith, etc. Sex is so casual and the tropes of the show are so established that you can literally predict who is going to sleep with who. All it takes is a longer shot of a sexually viable character and voila three episodes later, they're making hanky panky. Not exactly subtle. This treatment of sex is so frustrating because it is so inconsistent. Half of the time it's uncaring—for example David telling Keith that a plumber blew him—and the other time it's exaggerated—Claire breaks up with Russell because he cheats on her and it sends her into a downward spiral. Sex is a normal part of life and maybe I'm naive but I don't think that cheating is, particularly if you've made it clear that that is not what you want from a relationship. "Six Feet Under" does not agree with me because everyone cheats.

The noises of sex are another problem...also I don't think Peter Krause has a good kissing face. Let me explain: we hear a lot of macking in the series, like a lot, wet, wet, wet kisses. It's not that I don't like a good peck once in a while, but I don't think I need a ratio for spit exchange. Whatever, that's just an artistic difference. Peter Krause's face is another issue. He always looks so awkward when he's kissing...oh well.

The Crying

Buckets! Literal buckets of tears in "Six Feet Under". So much crying that it doesn't even make sense anymore and the worst offended here is Ruth; but Claire (Lauren Ambrose) is a close-runner up only because she's the worst actress in the show. She can't make herself cry so she cringes a lot and turns red and thrashes around in "agony"'s not convincing in the least. 

This just goes back to the thought of suffered trauma, because all the family has gotten screwed, ergo, they all must cry. And cry they do.

The Death/The Hallucinations

One of the motifs of "Six Feet Under" was the way it treated death with ghosts. Often times when David or Rico (Freddy Rodríguez) was working on a cadaver, the deceased would appear to them and talk to them, usually about some pithy truth of life; but that wasn't always the case. In the later episodes, the hallucinations began to encompass always darker things like Rico's stripper friend, Infinity, who he had an affair with. He sees her, as Jesus Christ, bleeding from her breast implants while his wife and this stripper start to undress him. That's a lovely scene right?

Death is just part of the territory. I mean, we're talking about a show about undertakers, it's bound to be a lot of death. The way that the idea of death is treated could have been great. In an early episode, Life and Death are personified for Nate and he sees them having sex. It's actually a wonderful scene about how the two are inseparable; but the show just left that behind and decided it would be best to torture these characters for another three and a half seasons.

The Final Season

Finally, this is where I've wanted to go. The last season is supposed to be the best, and it's far from it. The nuances of the fourth season implied that this might be the ending we all needed; but it wasn't...and shit got cray-cray again.

I think the best way to explain the melodrama is with the description of Nate's fortieth birthday party. It's a surprise party and he blurts out that Brenda is pregnant when he should have, even though she just had a miscarriage. Anyway, a bird flies into the house, a mysterious and beautiful blue bird. The guests stare at it perplexed and decide that it can find its own way out.

Then it gets real. Ruth starts screaming at Claire, Brenda and Nate have a spectacular fight. Claire and her boyfriend break up and the bird is still in the house. Everyone gets drunk, Claire sleeps with a forty year-old man and Nate goes crazy. He takes a broom and screams at everyone, telling his pregnant wife to "fuck off" and then attacks this bird, whatever symbolism it had, now destroyed.

Then the episode ends with him placing a garbage bag over the bird's corpse in the trash can looking straight into the camera and the viewer and saying smugly, "sorry".

That wasn't nearly enough of an apology.

The Rest...

The finale of the show is good, I can't deny that. It's quite an episode and very emotional. Is it as good as everyone says it is? Not nearly; but it is good. That doesn't make up for the injustices that the show committed.

If you liked "Six Feet Under"...I'm happy for you, because I feel like I just wasted years of my life to a show that was unequivocally cruel to all its characters and writing this blog post isn't nearly enough to save my sense of lost time.

Sorry to get existential on you...but, yeah, whatever.