Two decades after the premiere of the landmark HBO drama, the creator Alan Ball and others look back on its tender portrait of familial dysfunction.
“Six Feet Under,” the acclaimed HBO drama that premiered 20 years ago this week, was based on the hard but undeniable truth that “death and life are inextricable,” said the producer Alan Poul. So it’s fitting that its own life began with the death of a different show.
In 1999, at the same time Alan Ball’s movie “American Beauty,” directed by Sam Mendes, was en route to winning an Oscar for best picture (and winning Ball an award for best original screenplay), Ball’s ABC sitcom “Oh, Grow Up” was floundering in the ratings. At a lunch, the HBO executive Carolyn Strauss pitched Ball a series idea set in a family-run funeral home. Soon after, “Oh, Grow Up” was canceled and Ball wrote the pilot for the funeral-home show on spec, smuggling in variants of his sitcom characters.
“There was a very conservative gay guy; there was a sort of Lothario prodigal son,” Ball said in a recent video interview. “There was a precocious teenage daughter.”
These were the Fisher children, who would muddle through their various existential difficulties while living and working within the confines of the family’s funeral home. They also represented facets of Ball’s own personality. “As a gay man, I was mining my experience for David,” said Ball, who described David, the fretful brother played by Michael C. Hall, as “a guy whose worst enemy is himself.”
“As somebody who took a long time to grow up and still fought it every step along the way, I was pouring that into Nate,” he added. “And as somebody who aspires to be an artist and aspires to create work that is meaningful, that was Claire.”
Ball was used to receiving detailed feedback from network executives on his writing, which made it all the more gratifying when Strauss had just one note: “Could you make the whole thing just a little more [expletive] up?”
Ball complied — for example, the character of Brenda, initially written as a milquetoast girlfriend, became a far more complex partner and foil to Nate — and “Six Feet Under” was born.
Over the course of five seasons, “Six Feet Under,” which premiered on June 3, 2001, was a linchpin of HBO’s dominant Sunday-night schedule in the early 2000s, winning nine Emmys and the affections of millions of viewers transfixed by the Fisher family’s emotional struggles. The series was a groundbreaking exploration of grief and loss on television, its intensity leavened by a quirky, sideswiping sense of humor.
While “Six Feet Under” is overshadowed in the cultural memory by contemporaries like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” Ball’s series remains a landmark for its tender portrait of familial dysfunction, its groundbreaking depiction of gay characters and its finale, still fondly remembered as possibly the single best ending in television history.
Two decades later, the show’s creator, along with some of its stars, writers and crew members, were happy to pay tribute to the transformative series and its legacy.
“I’m gratified that it has maintained enough of a presence for a conversation like this to feel warranted,” Hall said.
While HBO was relatively hands-off in regards to Ball’s concept for the show, it did push for at least one big name to join the cast. The network thought the recurring role of Nathaniel, the Fisher family paterfamilias who dies (spoiler alert!) in the first episode and recurs as a ghostly presence, would be an ideal gig for a movie star. Ball managed to convince HBO that the character actor Richard Jenkins was right for the role, assuaging their concerns by casting Rachel Griffiths, who had recently been nominated for an Oscar for “Hilary and Jackie,” as Brenda.
Ball had pictured Christopher Meloni and Justin Theroux for the roles of the brothers Nate and David while writing the pilot, but neither was available when the casting process for “Six Feet Under” began.
“I was playing the M.C. in the Sam Mendes-directed production of ‘Cabaret’ and was invited to audition,” Hall said. “I think the fact that there was a connection between Sam Mendes and Alan Ball made it feel, at least if it worked out, potentially serendipitous.”
Hall, who had never worked in television before, found that his jitters suited the perpetually anxious character well. “I was glad that David Fisher was, especially when we first meet him, so wound up and tense, because I was somewhat wound up and tense about acting in front of a camera,” he said. “My hope was that my comfort level would stay just neck and neck with, if not a little ahead of, David’s comfort level with himself.”
Peter Krause and Jeremy Sisto had also read for David before Hall was cast. The producers had already settled on an actor Ball wouldn’t name for Nate, the prodigal brother newly returned from Seattle, but “we took him to HBO and he choked,” Ball said. “Then when Rachel flew over to read, we asked Peter Krause to read with her.”
“When we saw them together,” he added, “it was like, these are the two.”
Ball asked Sisto to appear in a single scene in the pilot, with the promise of a juicy part as Brenda’s brother if the series was picked up. “I was crying in the background of a shot, eating some olives out of the fridge, with a bright Christmas sweater on,” Sisto said of his brief appearance.
The series told stories that regularly alternated between darkness and hilarity. Claire (Lauren Ambrose) steals a human foot from the funeral home and sticks it in her jerky boyfriend’s locker. A man bends out of the driver’s seat to grab the morning newspaper and is run over by his own car. An evangelical woman confuses helium-filled sex dolls drifting into the sky for the Rapture.
“I can’t write anything that doesn’t have humor in it,” Ball said.
Bruce Eric Kaplan, a writer and producer on “Six Feet Under” who is best known as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, said that tonally, the show “was not that far from my cartoons, in terms of seeing the humor and the pain and the existential horror of daily life.”
The writers constructed stories from their own experiences — the Season 1 episode “The Room,” about Nathaniel’s secret hangout, was inspired by Kaplan’s father’s office — and the show demanded tremendous adaptability from the actors, who were required to summon deep emotion while also avoiding an easy laugh.
“It was nice to try to find the inherent humor in situations where I was simultaneously embodying someone who, at least at first, didn’t have much of a sense of humor about himself,” Hall said.
Ball remembered one scene from the pilot in which Frances Conroy, playing the materfamilias Ruth Fisher, was asked to throw dirt on her husband’s grave. Conroy was crying and disheveled, her nose running freely, and Ball tentatively approached her.
“When she finished, I was like, ‘Franny, that was amazing. I need to get it from a slightly different angle. Do you think you can do it again?’” Ball said. “And she was like, ‘Oh yeah, of course.’”
Poul and Ball hired an array of independent filmmakers to work on the show, with directors like Rodrigo Garcia and Nicole Holofcener bringing a Sundance vibe to “Six Feet Under.” The show’s style was also intended to silently convey its vision of romantic and familial relationships.
“People didn’t connect with each other in the show,” the cinematographer Alan Caso said, referring to its embrace of Wellesian deep focus. “Everybody was sort of their own little island.”
“Six Feet Under” was quickly embraced by fans and lauded by the Emmys — in 2003 it received more nominations than any other series. The Fishers changed in ways subtle and grand, with Nate taking root at the funeral home, David coming out of the closet and Claire embracing art as a pursuit and passion.
As the series went on, it explored unexpected facets of its characters’ interior lives, from Brenda’s sex addiction to David’s nightmarish encounter with a hitchhiker in the episode “That’s My Dog.”
That Season 4 installment, which exemplified the kinds of narrative and emotional swerves that distinguished “Six Feet Under,” was “actually very explicitly inspired by the ‘Pine Barrens’ episode of ‘The Sopranos,’” said Poul, who directed “That’s My Dog.”
Like “Pine Barrens,” the episode begins in traditional fashion then transforms into something darker and more enigmatic, flitting between Fisher story lines before settling in with David and the cruel, capricious drifter who simultaneously frightens and attracts him.
“We were a little surprised by the vehemence with which some people objected to it,” Poul said. “And other people said, ‘That was the most exciting hour of television I’ve seen in a year.’”
By the fourth season of “Six Feet Under,” Ball was feeling exhausted and burned out, and he told HBO he was ready to step away. The network reluctantly agreed to wrap up with just one more season. When the writers returned for the fifth season, the most intense debate surrounded whether Nate should be killed off.
“There was a vocal faction of us who felt like this is the ending,” said Kate Robin, who wrote eight episodes of the show. “This is what the show is about: This man’s fear of death, and his early death.”
Ball eventually acceded, and remembers one of the writers suggesting that they actually kill off all of their characters: “It was like a joke, and then they said, ‘No, we should actually be with each character at the moment of their death.’ I sort of went, well, of course. I mean, how else could you end this show? So that’s what we started working towards.”
Of all the finales of its era, “Everyone’s Waiting,” in which viewers see the final moments of each of the show’s protagonists, eventually journeying all the way to the far edge of 2085 to witness the death of Claire at 101, is perhaps the most beloved. Even the cast and crew seem dazzled by its cohesion.
“I actually had a Prius at the time, and I would drive around listening to that Sia song, ‘Breathe Me,’ crying,” Sisto said.
Justina Machado, who played Vanessa Diaz, said, “There’s nothing more satisfying for an audience” than “to be able to see the journey of the characters that they’ve lived with and loved for five seasons.” Garcia, who directed five episodes of the show, called it “the best series finale there has been.”
The series’s impact on the cast and crew went beyond the professional, extending into some of their most profound personal decisions.
“None of us wanted to be buried anymore after we did the show,” said Suzuki Ingerslev, the production designer for the final three seasons. “Everybody was like, ‘We’re going to be cremated.’”
The pandemic and its disruptions are finally beginning to recede in the United States, but the vast scale of collective loss the country endured — and that some areas continue to endure — is hard to fathom. “Dying and grieving and losing and surviving are all experiences that we as a culture, as a people, as humanity, are grappling with in such an unrelenting way right now,” Robin said. “It feels like that aspect of the show, while always relevant, has become even more universally so.”
We have been shaken by the presence of death, but life still beckons to us, asking us to find a way to carry on. Ball sees the show as communicating a simple but profound message that remains as relevant now as ever. “The thing is, we die!” he said. “So deal with it, and live your life.”
“Don’t hold yourself back from fear,” he added. “Because you’re going to die anyway.”