Photo: HBO

Bring Out Your Dead

Making the case for the Six Feet Under pilot to be inducted into The Canon.

Premiering in the summer of 2001, just after the third season of The Sopranos wrapped, Six Feet Under might have actually been the show that solidified HBO's reputation as television's home for high-quality drama if only because it proved that the channel could handle two of them at a time. Creator Alan Ball was coming off winning an Oscar for writing American Beauty, and HBO liked his pitch about a family-run funeral home in California, and here we are at the premiere episode.

First of all, how depressing is L.A. at Christmas? So much of this pilot is in taking idyllic setups -- the holidays; the family business -- and making you look at the roiling human business going on underneath. So Nathaniel Fisher, played by Richard Jenkins, takes the gleaming brand-new hearse out to pick up his son Nate (Peter Krause) from the airport. Singing "I'll Be Home For Christmas," sneaking a cigarette behind his wife's back, Nathaniel gets blindsided by a bus at the intersection and is killed instantly.

Back at home, Nathaniel's younger son David (Michael C. Hall) is managing the floor at a wake for a woman whose husband is, let's say, taking the long view on his wife's demise. You'll see this a lot, in both this episode and the series as a whole -- the platitudes and scriptedness of our funereal rituals made to look absurd when contrasted with ugly complicated people. He gets a little enamored with the "ugly" part at times, but Ball gets to the heart of that contrast in the ways we cover up our moments of extreme despair with strict protocol. Case in point: when Nathaniel's wife Ruth (Frances Conroy) gets the phone call that her husband's been killed and makes a big ol' scene upstairs while David's trying to keep things calm at the wake.

The youngest Fisher, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), is still in high school and hanging with her high-school friends, a bunch of total burn-out stoners, including Gabe, played by Eric Balfour at the absolute peak of his "sorry-not-sorry but Joe totally would" phase. Gabe encourages Claire to try crystal meth, with the iron-clad endorsement that it is not, in fact, crack. Claire has no sooner exhaled than she gets a call from David with the news about her dad, leading to my single favorite scene in the episode and what probably sold me on the show, and Lauren Ambrose, for good.

The eldest Fisher, Nate, is flying in from Seattle, which is where he ended up after fleeing the family home as soon as was legally possible. We see him have anonymous airport sex with a woman from his flight, but when he gets the call about his dad while still pantsless in the the janitor's closet, this nameless woman becomes his ride home. So to speak. On the way, battling through a surprising amount of Rachel Griffiths ADR dialogue, Nate tells Brenda (for that is her name) about his family, and she hers.

Once the whole family is reunited, their myriad dysfunctions and resentments become aggressively clear. Nate left home early enough for him barely to get to know Claire, and his push-pull of lecturing her without providing actual guidance to his poor tweaking sister is met by a series of short-tempered surly teenage responses on her end. Ruth's battiness has an edge of danger to it, like she might actually be unhinged, and Nate and David compete for her favor but in a way that never actually seems to involve engaging with her for too long. The brothers' rivalry is predictable, perhaps, but true, and the interplay between Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall is instantly one of the show's strengths.

There are practical concerns, of course. There is now a funeral to be planned for, on Christmas Day. We don't see a ton of Freddy Rodríguez as mortuary assistant Rico, but the small bits of him taking an enthusiastic pride in his work are darkly funny, plus the part at the burial where Ruth compliments his "porcelain doll" hands is fairly priceless. Mostly, it's David who takes on the task of burying his father, going by the book in a way that frustrates the crunchier Nate. The thing is, for as buttoned-up as David is, he's holding down a secret life with a secret boyfriend -- hot cop Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), who catches Claire's eye at the wake just before she spots him and her closeted brother in a moment. And for all Nate's Whole Foodsy Seattle-ness, he's as angry and unfulfilled as any stereotypical establishment dad. This subversion of tropes, in the hands of excellent actors, makes for some excitingly open-ended characters. Ruth's revelation that she'd been having an ongoing affair with a hairdresser isn't quite so subversive, but Ruth's deepening happens later in the first season.

The mundanity of the funeral business is juiced by frequent flights of fancy in the episode, from the fake commercials selling funeral-parlor accoutrements in the style of Egoiste perfume ads to momentary hallucinations. Each of the surviving Fishers sees an apparition of Nathaniel at least once, each moment reflecting his or her own particular neuroses -- Nate's lifelong fear of death, for example.

Everything comes to a head at the burial, particularly for Nate and David. Nate drama-queens about how David's "hermetically-sealed" approach to bereavement is suffocating them all and he refuses to conform, man. I'm as prone to a "shut up, Nate" as the next guy, and as the series would go on, I'd be even more so, but what works about this episode is that after Nate delivers his speech and nearly stomps off, Ruth steps up and puts Nate's theoretical rant into practice. Her grief is intense and ugly and perhaps just as cathartic as Nate says. Afterward, David also gets his chance to articulate his position to Nate, though the dialogue is smart and shocking enough -- I'm thinking of David mentioning sticking formaldehype-soaked cotton up his dead father's ass -- that nothing feels like debate class. At episode's end, you've got two brothers poised to butt heads over the family business and a family whose members have no real idea how to be around each other now huddled closer in grief. This is a series that meandered and faltered and wallowed at times through its run, but there really wasn't anything else like it on TV, and at its best, it created the kind of characters who made you pay attention. This pilot episode is a great launching pad for most of them.

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