Friday, November 5, 2010

The Many Deaths Of Nate Fisher: Why The Complete Six Feet Under Is Worth It!

The Good: Exceptional acting, GREAT and memorable characters, Wonderful concept, Great development
The Bad: No exceptional, exclusive bonus materials
The Basics: The acclaimed drama Six Feet Under, about a family who lives and works in a funeral home is finally available in one master set!

I've got a real problem with television production companies that sell audiences on DVD boxed sets season by season only to create a master set at the very end of the television run. This is more a legitimate beef for older, established shows where the material is essentially completed. I think a wonderful, smart business model would be to take a show like Murphy Brown and release it as a full series set for the die-hard fans and then later on season by season for those slackers who don't want the whole thing (to date, the only series to follow my advice in this regard is Ally McBeal). You know, reward the real fans by getting it to them first, then the picky eaters with the sloppy seconds. Instead, far too often what happens is companies will release DVDs of season 1 shortly before season 2 airs, season 2 before season 3, etc. At the end of the series, major series' have been creating sets that include the entire series (Friends, Alias, The West Wing, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Sex and the City and the classic M*A*S*H have all done this so far) in one giant boxed set (though it is usually more compact than the original releases as far as shelf space goes). One of the latest series' to do this and possibly the best value for this movement is Six Feet Under, now available as Six Feet Under - The Complete Series (wonderfully titled on the boxed set as Six Feet Under: In Memoriam).

Six Feet Under - The Complete Series is a phenomenal value for several reasons. The first is, it's a great television show (more on that in a moment). Next, unlike Friends, Alias, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and M*A*S*H, it was not heavily syndicated on television. For those who do not have HBO, there was truly no way to see this series, save by visiting a friend on the nights it aired or picking it up on DVD. It is slowly being picked up by stations in a very edited form for syndication. Finally, this boxed set is an exceptional value for those who have not bought the DVD releases season by season because it includes all 24 previously released DVDs plus two soundtrack c.d.s in a more compact box than the original five sets for (usually) less than the price of four of the sets. Buying this set this way is like getting one DVD set plus both soundtrack albums for free. It makes me wish I had held off to get this originally.

There's a reason I didn't, though. Six Feet Under is an amazing series and it is one that was perfectly timed to reach into the collective unconscious of America and produced so well it will continue to resonate there for a long time. This show is rightfully a phenomenon, but because it was an HBO show, it's audience was never as large as it ought to have been. Over the course of sixty-three episodes, Six Feet Under took a frank, unflinching view at death and the importance of living while one is actually alive.

Six Feet Under begins with death, in the case of the series opener with the death of Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. at Christmastime. Nate Fisher, his son, was returning home for the holiday and ended up stranded at the airport where he was having anonymous sex with a woman he just met named Brenda. Nate returns home to the funeral home run by his father to find his family in shambles.

David, his efficient brother, is poised to take over the business with his assistant Federico Diaz (who was mentored by Nathaniel) when the family learns that Nathaniel's will places Fisher & Sons Funeral Home in the hands of both Nate and David. When Ruth, Nate's mother, asks Nate to stay through her difficult time, Nate concedes and he soon finds reason to stick around longer. One of those reasons is Claire, his younger sister who he barely knows who begins acting out in high school and experimenting with drugs. Another reason is Brenda, who Nate begins to see more of and begins to fall in love with.

As Nate settles into life at Fisher & Sons, he soon finds his life deeply conflicted as he clashes with David over the business and David's difficulties with coming out of the closet, his inability to reconcile himself to his emotionally fractured mother, the role of mentor that he takes on with Claire, his budding relationship with Brenda and the threat that emerges in the form of Brenda's schizophrenic brother, Billy.

Largely, Six Feet Under is Nate's story. This is the tale of Nate Fisher coming home to Fisher & Sons and his tenure there. Over the course of the sixty-three episodes, much of the plot and movement is motivated by Nate's actions, though there are a large number of storylines exploring the other principle characters. Six Feet Under follows a general formula episode to episode as someone dies and the Fishers (and Federico) are forced to prepare the remains for burial. This formula is occasionally defied, but it largely the standard that holds together the episodes and creates the series.

This is a ballsy show, unafraid to take out principle characters or to radically and realistically alter integral relationships in the show. So, for example, while David and Keith are very much in love, they fight quite a bit and spend over a year apart! Their relationship is stormy and David moves out, moves back, moves on. And actions have consequences, sometimes dire ones. In the fourth season David is brutalized in a terrible (though effective!) episode and as a result is shattered, a character point that is not entirely resolved by the end of the series. That's clever. That's powerful. That's realistic and those are the strengths of Six Feet Under.

Six Feet Under is truly about characters, individuals who live in the world of the series who we become enchanted with enough to watch over 3700 minutes of their lives! Here is who you would watch in Six Feet Under:

Nate Fisher - Called home and compelled to stay by love of his family and their obvious need, Nate oscillates between selflessness and great selfishness. He struggles to form meaningful relationships and his attempt to form one with Brenda leads him to try to understand what it takes to love another and commit to them. Unfortunately for Nate, an accident soon reveals that he had a potentially critical problem with blood vessels in his brain, a medical condition that threatens to kill him,

David Fisher - Upon the death of his father and mentor, he finds himself in a position no longer able to deny his homosexuality and no longer able to keep it from his family members. While dealing with his father's death and his difficulty with admitting his sexuality publicly, his relationship with Keith falls apart and he finds himself in a nightmarish state of meaningless sex and drug use that complicate his life in ways that resonate for years. David consistently struggles with pride and identity as well as his religious convictions that often make him feel guilty and ashamed for who he is,

Claire Fisher - Shocked at the death of her father and loathing the tedium of her last years of high school, Claire begins to become an experimental young woman. This leads her to a relationship with the mentally ill artist Billy Chenowith (Brenda's schizophrenic brother) as well as numerous drugs that she samples. Her life comes into focus (pun intended) as she receives validation from her art, which develops into a profound love and ability with photography. She surrounds herself with intriguing artists who help guide her when her family becomes preoccupied with their own issues,

Ruth Fisher - At once emotionally distant, then emotionally demanding, Ruth oscillates between extremes making it exceptionally difficult for her family to adapt to her moods and for them to get close, though what she desires most is intimacy. The abrupt death of Nathaniel leaves her with profound guilt as she had been having an affair with her hairdresser. She finds herself susceptible to the suggestions of others and goes from man to man and finds herself in a cult. She slowly develops friendships, including an unlikely one with a boisterous woman who is nothing like her and another with a soft-spoken man who instantly attracts her,

Keith Charles - David's partner and lover, Keith is a cop who has anger management issues. This leads him to violence at work and violence in his relationship with David that the less secure man is unable to deal with. While he struggles to relate to David, he finds his family falling apart as his sister sinks into drug addiction and his niece is forced upon him. Keith and David fall apart as a couple, though whenever they truly need one another, they reach out. When Keith's problems at work reach a head, he finds himself in an impossible situation,

Federico Diaz - Father of - quite soon in the series - two, Federico fights for what he sees as his rightful place in Fisher & Sons, which to him means equal partner. Feeling discriminated against, Federico lashes out at the Fishers and joins their competitors, who are working to put them out of business and where Federico is simply a cog in the machine. He struggles to provide for his family, be a loving dad and meet his wife's needs, which is complicated when she sinks into depression after her mother's death,

and Brenda Chenowith - A woman who has returned to Los Angeles, despite the fact that that means being closer to her family, who she resents greatly for using her in a psychological experiment as a child. Brenda is deeply scarred and works to protect and mother Billy, the only person in her life obviously worse off than herself. While she falls in love with Nate, Billy goes off his medicine and becomes violent, forcing Brenda to take actions she swore she never would.

There are more characters, though the ones above are the essentials and some of the important characters come in late in the series (and should be surprises when they do!).

What brings the characters to life vividly are the actors who portray them. This is a solid cast, with Rachel Griffiths (Brenda), Freddy Roderiguez (Federico) and Mathew St. Patrick (Keith) giving superlative performances of their careers. Griffiths, for example, performs in a flawless American English accent despite the fact that she is VERY Australian (some of the bonus features are shocking to listen to her as a result)!

Lauren Ambrose broke out with her performance of Claire Fisher. Ambrose is a mature, professional actress and her place on Six Feet Under demanded some pretty big acting moments (Claire fantasizes frequently, which leads her to big dance numbers and singing in her mind and on screen!) and Ambrose lives up, never making us doubt the authenticity of her confused young woman.

Frances Conroy is exceptional as the matriarch Ruth Fisher. Conroy has the ability to portray emotional vulnerability, shock, horror, and profound love, sometimes all within the same scene. Conroy spent five years playing a character who was mostly in a dark place, surrounded by death and miserable people. Conroy's performance helps to expertly create the atmosphere and she makes the role completely empathetic and she rules the screen.

Michael C. Hall plays David Fisher and he's one of those performers the viewer watches and says "wow!" Classically trained, Hall is so shockingly good at embodying his gay character that is still surprises people to learn he is happily married. That's how convincingly he walks through the life of David Fisher. He has tremendous range, though his character is often serious, and he creates possibly the most memorable character from this series.

The burden for a lot of the show falls on Peter Krause. I watched Krause on Cybill back in the day and fell in love with his performance of Casey McCall on the tremendous Aaron Sorkin dramedy Sports Night (click here for my review of that!). Here Krause creates a character who is (usually) completely different from any of the characters he has played before. In the middle of the series, he is given some incredible acting challenges and he rises to all of those challenges.

Six Feet Under is powerful in plot, themes, characters and acting, everything that makes for a truly great and enduring dramatic series. This boxed set includes all of the bonus features previously produced for the earlier DVD sets, so those who get this set will not be missing anything (save a trading card from the Season 2 set). Conversely, those who bought the earlier DVD sets will not be missing anything save the soundtracks and the more convenient box. That's nice because at least those people are not punished for buying early or taunted with anything limited that's only available here. As for the soundtracks, they are a nice bonus, but nothing absolutely essential.

This is an adult show with a straightforward and daring look at death. It uses language and situations intended for an adult audience and as such it is remarkably satisfying for those who want to watch something that is engaging and intelligent. It is what one might expect from a drama from HBO in this way.

Because of some of the radical plot swings, the series is not quite perfect. That's with my tough grading! This is an amazing series and buying the series all at once saves time, money and the effort of hunting down the original sets.

For further information on the individual seasons, they are reviewed separately at:
Six Feet Under - Season 1
Six Feet Under - Season 2
Six Feet Under - Season 3
Six Feet Under - Season 4
Six Feet Under - Season 5

This set and series is definitely greater than the sum of its parts and worth adding to the collection of anyone who likes a serious, adult drama.

For other HBO series reviews, please visit my review of True Blood Season 1 by clicking here!


For other television boxed set reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here.

© 2010, 2008, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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