Reality TV

Six Feet Under concludes its five-year run on Sunday (8 p.m., HBO), and that means we'll be saying goodbye to perhaps the smartest - but definitely the most realistic - drama ever to grace the small screen. Is he or isn't he...dead? Brothers David (Michael C. Hall) and Nate (Peter Krause).

Since 2001, the Fishers and those in their orbit have dealt, mostly unsuccessfully, with birth, love and lots of death while trying to keep the family funeral home in business. It hasn't been easy. It's often been exceedingly grim. But it's so brilliantly acted and written that it always felt like eavesdropping on your neighbors.

You want reality TV? Six Feet Under is reality. These people make bad choices. They cheat. They hurt. They fight. Their emotions often trump their logic. They're insensitive and cruel to the people they care about the most. Unlike typical TV characters, but like real people, they often don't know what to say or how to make things better. They're constantly searching, but they're not sure for what. They're occasionally paralyzed by life. Their minds wander, conjuring images of the dead and fantasies of what they might have done or said differently. Their joy is too often short-lived because they don't appreciate it and sometimes don't even recognize it.

In the very first episode, the family was brought together by the car-crash death of their father/husband. That brought Nate (Peter Krause), the oldest Fisher child, home from Seattle and forced the family to confront the idea that they didn't know each other or themselves. Five years later, they've grown to care more deeply about each other, but tensions constantly bubble up among the family and its friends.

David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) and his boyfriend, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), always seem one fight away from breaking up for good. Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose), a frustrated art student, always seems to find precisely the wrong guy. This season, she's been dating a Republican lawyer who loves Top 40 music and is her polar opposite. Normally, Claire would walk away, but there's something about this guy that won't let her.

Then there's the family matriarch, Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy), who'd love to please her family but has no idea how to do so. (They don't know what they want; how could she?) She's gone through a series of wrong men - like mother, like daughter - and has even fantasized about killing them, though she's much too passive to do something like that.

This season has forced them to deal with Nate's death. (How many shows have the guts to kill a main character?) And in that story line, the writers have shown just how deep they can make the characters by forcing them to confront their own mortality. Seeing Ruth beat herself up because she doesn't have a cell phone and wasn't around when Nate was first hospitalized, seeing David try to come to grips with the conflicted relationship he had with his older brother, seeing Claire so confused, we feel like we are there watching real people express genuine human emotions. They could be us. Happily, they're not. But they could be.

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