Culture Decoder

Six Feet Under

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The DECODER series — to which SEMIOVOX has invited our semiotician colleagues from around the world to contribute — explores fictional semiotician-esque action as depicted in books, movies, TV shows, etc.

I came to the HBO series Six Feet Under (2001–2005) twenty years after it first aired. Despite the recommendations, my expectations were low. I was in for a pleasant surprise. Though no single member of the funeral home-operating Fisher family acts as a “decoder,” the show’s episodes — each of which begins with a death before zooming in on the funeral preparations, the mourners, and the farewell rite; and each of which also deals with the Fishers’ individual and collective issues — impels us to dig beneath the surface of our own everyday routines in order to ask difficult personal and philosophical questions.

With narrative mastery, the series’ first episode depicts an event that functions as a trigger that sets in motion the intertwined stories of the Fisher family. That first event, unsurprisingly, is a death. Nate and David Fisher’s father, the funeral home director, has died; this event will eventually transform everyone in the family. His widow Ruth, daughter Claire, and sons now begin a journey toward their authentic selves. (Paging Dr. Freud! “Killing the father” is what makes it possible for these characters to evolve and thrive.) The Fishers’ personal stories are intertwined with the stories of each episode’s initial death. We are critical of some Fishers, grow to love others… but all the while, we too are evolving along with them.

Death, we discover, is an everyday occurrence, one that can happen at the least expected time and place. Chance, randomness — something that we can’t perceive during our ordinary routines — is revealed at the moment of a person’s death. We struggle with questions about death’s randomness: What if he hadn’t been a passenger in that car that crashed? What if he hadn’t been bitten by that poisonous insect? What if the couple’s sex game, usefully harmless and fun, hadn’t turned deadly? Religion rushes in, at such moments, to help us stop struggling with these questions about chance. Everything that happens was meant to happen; ours is not to reason why. Six Feet Under depicts such consolations, but doesn’t buy into them. And the show urges us to ask the same questions about life as we do about death, the same questions about joy as about suffering, about love as about disaffection.

A key element of the work at Fisher & Sons Funeral Home is embalming. As the Fishers prepare each body for the “last goodbye” with their loved ones, making it appear “as if asleep” in the open casket, we witness the body moving from its authentic state (pale, sunken) to a state of lifelike appearance. Which prompts us to wonder: Is the body merely an empty container? What does the body mean? What is life?

The Fishers themselves, ironically, are each on their own existential journey from appearance to authenticity. Effortfully shedding themselves of the repressions instilled by the father, they begin to acknowledge and “own” their desires and fears. The mother, formerly a prudish woman with no interest in life outside of the domestic sphere, takes lovers. The son who’d moved away returns home. The son who’d concealed his homosexuality stops hiding. The “freaky” daughter emerges as a talented artist. With delicacy, the show breaks the shell of appearance within which each character is trapped. We may not learn the meaning of life, exactly, but we come to understand that a happy and meaningful life has something to do with recognizing who we really are, what makes us tick… and becoming that person.

DECODER: Adelina Vaca (Mexico) on ARRIVAL | William Liu (China) on A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE | Tim Spencer (England) on VURT | Ramona Lyons (USA) on BABEL-17 | Rachel Lawes (England) on NICE WORK | Alfredo Troncoso (Mexico) on THE ODYSSEY | Gabriela Pedranti (Spain) on MUSIC BOX | Charles Leech (Canada) on PATTERN RECOGNITION | Lucia Laurent-Neva (England) on LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY | Whitney Dunlap-Fowler (USA) on THE GIVER | Colette Sensier (England / Portugal) on PRIESTDADDY | Jamin Pelkey (Canada) on THE WONDER | Maciej Biedziński (Poland) on KOSMOS | Josh Glenn (USA) on LE GARAGE HERMÉTIQUE | Antje Weißenborn (Germany) on BABYLON BERLIN | Ximena Tobi (Argentina) on SIX FEET UNDER | Mariane Cara (Brazil) on ROPE | Maria Papanthymou (Greece) on MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS | Chirag Mediratta (India) on BLEACH | Dimitar Trendafilov (Bulgaria) on THE MATRIX | Martha Arango (Sweden) on ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE | Becks Collins (England) on THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY | Gemma Jones (Netherlands) on EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE | Ivan Islas (Mexico) on THE NAME OF THE ROSE | Paulina Goch-Kenawy (Poland) on THE SENSE OF AN ENDING.

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Tags: Decoder, TV