"Go ahead ... open the box." - Nathaniel Fisher
Following his hugely successful feature film debut, American Beauty (1999), writer/producer Alan Ball teamed with veteran producer Alan Poul to create a uniquely dark and dysfunctional dramatic series for HBO. The first season of Six Feet Under premiered in the summer of 2001, and while the pilot episode and subsequent season were amazing television, it flew largely under the radar and was overshadowed by HBO's other emerging mega-hits, The Sopranos and Sex and the City. In an interesting twist of scheduling, however, the second season followed barely 6 months after the first while The Sopranos took a 15-month break, allowing the tremendous word of mouth to build momentum for this great new series and helping it step out from the shadow of its predecessor. This scheduling quirk also left it as HBO's lone dramatic representative in the upcoming Emmy awards, and it received a staggering 23 nominations and was now completely in the spotlight. With two seasons under its belt, Six Feet Under was not just a critical darling but a bona fide hit. Many series would be content with such status and would go out of their way to reproduce the particular formula that led to their success, but with this third season, Six Feet Under made some incredibly bold and unexpected dramatic choices that shocked critics, frustrated loyal viewers, and ultimately led to a 13 episode run that was uniquely artistic, bitingly insightful, and arguably the best season of the series to date.
N.B. As with any review of this nature, be aware that discussion of plot elements from the previous seasons is essential and unavoidable. Also, in the case of this particular release, it will be impossible to adequately review it without "spoiling" certain aspects of the first episode in the season. Significant elements of every episode in this release are a direct result of the season premiere, and while I do not believe that discussing them lessens the impact of the season in any way, you should be warned before reading further.
When we last left the Fishers, their lives were all in a state of transition. Ruth has just learned that she is a grandmother, Keith has been suspended from the police force, Claire has graduated from high school and is preparing to attend a local art school, and Federico has bought 25% of Fisher & Sons to save the business. If these uncertain futures are not enough, the second season closes with Nate undergoing a risky surgery to repair an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in his brain. With another series, such a "cliffhanger" would not hold much dramatic tension, since killing the star (in the absence of a contract dispute) is not really an option; however, with Six Feet Under, anything is possible, and this third season proves just that.
The season opens with "Perfect Circles", an episode I ranked the 3rd best of the entire 2002-2003 television season and a remarkably audacious and awe-inspiring effort unlike anything I have ever seen outside of raw science fiction. Complications arose during Nate's surgery, and he is dead ... and he's not. In a stroke of writing genius, "Perfect Circles" weaves one of quantum physics' most fascinating mysteries into a delicately constructed episode that questions the very nature of all existence. I once wrote a somewhat detailed analysis of this specific episode, and I'll spare you a majority of the scientific mumbo jumbo here, but in short, this episode deals with a famous thought experiment known as "Schroedinger's Cat" that seeks to illustrate the absurdity of a specific subatomic phenomenon. Skip the following paragraph if the details of said phenomenon are not of interest to you.
On a subatomic level, the physical act of observing a particle (bouncing a photon off of it to find its position) actually changes the momentum of that particle, and consequently, the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known (Heisenberg uncertainty). Fast-fowarding through years of research and debate, de Broglie's work on the wave-particle duality of matter along with the double-slit experiment, a model known as the Copenhagen Interpretation was developed, indicating that a particle exists as a wave-form probability until it is observed, and only after it is observed does it "decide" on a position and "exist". To illustrate how crazy this seems, Schroedinger designed a thought experiment where a box could be setup in such a way that an unsuspecting cat's life would be held in the balance by the wave-form probability of a radioactive isotope attached to a vial of poison. If these quantum theories are indeed correct, something decades of research continues to support, then technically this theoretical cat would be both dead and alive until an observer opened the box to check on him. If this sounds crazy to you, you are not alone, and there are detractors of this theory as well as alternate views that are far beyond the scope of this review (as is perhaps this oversimplified paragraph in the first place); nevertheless, the questions raised by these related experiments represent perhaps the most dazzling scientific mystery of all time, and to see it handled so well in this darkly comedic drama about one dysfunctional family and their funeral home is unexpected, thought-provoking, and downright awe-inspiring.
Nate is both dead and alive, or as the manifestation of his dead father points out, maybe it's all just the anesthesia talking. "Perfect Circles" sets out to show us many different possibilities of Nate's existence or non-existence, and while I won't go into the specifics of those possibilities here or how the episode is resolved, suffice it to say that the work is fascinating in its approach, brilliant in its execution, and it leaves the viewer asking some difficult and surprisingly advanced questions for a television series. Does our own consciousness affect the behavior of matter? Can an observer affect the observed simply through the observation itself? Does matter only exist when it's being observed (if a tree falls ...), and if so, is existence really just a function of our own consciousness? More simply, are our lives just a series of circumstances that occur beyond our control, or are we more than that? Do we have a choice?
The true beauty of this season premiere is not that it appeals to quantum physics geeks like myself, or that it cleverly works in shadow interference from potential parallel universes, but that everything I've described in the previous two paragraphs is just icing. Without any knowledge of Schroedinger and his ill-fated cat, "Perfect Circles" is still a dramatically effective work of art. Whether the viewer cares about -- or even notices -- the scientific display going on in the background, this episode still demands he question the nature of humanity and our brief and fragile existence. The closing scenes are elegantly simple and yet eloquently insightful, and it's no surprise that this season premiere was skillfully directed by Rodrigo Garcia, whom as I've noted before, I believe to be the best director working in television today. It is a bold and daring hour of entertainment that on its own would justify the purchase of this DVD set, but it also sets in motion the circumstances that will be the foundation of the rest of the season.
Thematically, there is quite a bit going on in this third installment, and it continues to amaze me just how much compelling drama can be packed into these shorter HBO seasons. People often question why the seasons are shorter or why they should purchase a DVD set that is roughly half as long as a network series, and the answer is simple: zero filler. There is absolutely no filler in this season, no superfluous episodes, unnecessary plots, excess characters, or wasted effort of any kind. Whether it takes 45 minutes or crosses over the hour mark, each episode is exactly as long as it needs to be, no more and no less. It's an impressive achievement to present such dense material in so few episodes, and each of the major characters faces a detailed and well-crafted arc worthy of attention.
David and Keith are having serious troubles with their relationship, much of which stems from their fears of turning into their own parents, and they are seeking counseling to try and get through this. It is a difficult time for them, and while it is clear that they deeply love each another, finding a way to share a life with one another continues to be a source of pain for both of them. To say that their relationship is the most interestingly portrayed gay couple on television is certainly accurate, but it's also an understatement. The growing relationship between David and Keith is one of the most compelling of any kind, gay or straight, and the depth of their character development makes it so easy to identify with both of their situations. In this season, quite a bit of time is focused on the two of them as a couple, not just as lovers, but partners in life on a day-to-day basis, and it is very effective.
For Claire, this third season represents a real growing process and a significant chapter in her life. She is no longer just an artsy high school student stumbling about in the world, but she is a developing woman who has found what could be her one true passion: expressing herself through art. As the season begins, she anxiously awaits her education at LAC-Arts, but she soon finds herself immersed in the politics and manipulation and hypocrisy of this world in which she hopes to thrive. And yet, no matter how much some of her teachers and fellow students disgust her, she does in fact need their guidance and experience to become a better artist herself.
Ruth too continues to grow as a character since the death of her husband. Marrying young after getting pregnant, there is so much of life that she has yet to experience, and this season represents an even greater spiritual awakening for her, some of which is inspired through the introduction of a new friend, Bettina, portrayed with hilarious energy by the great Kathy Bates. Bettina helps Ruth experience more than a couple new adventures, and this somewhat forceful nudging inspires Ruth to even tackle an adventure or two on her own. This is a very liberating season for Ruth, and it's both sweet and hilarious to watch her face these new experiences while retaining the tenderness that has served her so well over the years.
Almost as much a part of the family as the Fishers themselves is Federico, who is now a partner in the business and an even greater part of the overall story. His family life is somewhat of a mess, as his wife struggles to cope with the death of her mother, and he is trying with everything he has to be a good husband in the face of adversity. He is also struggling to find his place in the family business. More comfortable in the basement dealing with corpses than their surviving relatives, his increased involvement in the operation of a funeral home is having a greater effect on him emotionally.
And then there's Nate. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or perhaps more appropriately a quantum physicist, to figure out that Nate does not disappear from the show. His story, as expected, is the most compelling of them all, and the work Peter Krause does in this season is so spectacular that it's shocking he hasn't become a huge star. More than anything, he does not want to turn into his father, and yet every step he takes leads him further and further down that road. He tries so hard to be the right person and do the honorable thing, but the process is eating him up inside and slowly leading him down a tragic path.
This third season also introduces, or further develops, many other interesting characters, and each of them adds even more depth to the overall story of this family. In art school, Claire meets Russell, an intense and unafraid artist whom she befriends, as well as Olivier, a former success who now teaches art ostensibly to live vicariously through his students. Through the three of them, the show frequently poses the question, "What is art?" or more maddening, "What is good art?" It's a subject that isn't very often talked about on any deep level in television shows, and the dialogue between the bitter teacher and the naive but idealistic students is often fascinating in its intentionally cryptic and manipulative dual meaning. Their experience also provides a window into the lives of struggling artists and an understanding for how the pursuit can drive one towards insanity.
With Rico as a partner in the business and no longer running errands, another interesting character is brought into the fold, a quirky intern named Arthur, played brilliantly by Rainn Wilson. Arthur is truly odd, even within the context of a family that lives in a funeral home. Home-schooled and predominantly sheltered from the outside world, he has a delicately old-fashioned personality, and he almost immediately bonds with Ruth, who understandably looks on him as an old and kind soul. He adds a truly hilarious quirkiness to the show, and nearly everything he does is fun to watch. Also adding some hilarity is Catherine O'Hara as a ridiculously neurotic producer and landlord to Nate's on-again/off-again girlfriend from his past, Lisa.
A somewhat minor character in previous episodes, Lisa takes center-stage in this season, and Lili Taylor is an absolutely perfect casting selection for the role. She is so nice and warm and has so much love to give, but she is also hindered by intense insecurities of being alone. Her addition as a major fixture in this season seemed to rub many viewers the wrong way, but I find that it works to perfection, and I have a difficult time imagining the journey of the Fishers without her in their lives.
Finally, there's Brenda. Although in a somewhat diminished role for this season and traveling a path a bit detached from the rest of the Fishers, Rachel Griffiths' work in this season is some of the best in her career. She completely steals every scene she is in, and the viewer's heart inescapably aches with hers as she desperately tries to repair her life. While Six Feet Under is predominantly about the Fishers and their relationships, the series would be nothing without Brenda, and she shines greater than ever before in this third season.
With all these characters, and still more whom I haven't mentioned, it's remarkable how strongly developed each one has become and how detailed each of their stories truly is. From the major members of the Fisher family down to the most minor of recurring characters, everyone has a story, and each one is unique and compelling. Even the "deaths of the week", a recurring theme that is far from a gimmick or formula, inject a new level of depth and understanding to the series as a whole. From the actors to the writers to the directors, Six Feet Under exhibits a compelling level of insight into our own humanity. Darkly comedic, it really captures some of the absurdly hilarious aspects of our existence, and fiercely emotional, it taps into the core of what makes us human beings -- our needs and desires, our joy and our pain, and how we face both life and death -- and it does so in such a subtle and beautiful way that is unlike anything else on television.
For all of the complaints some viewers had when this third season originally aired, taken as a whole and in context, it elevates an already fantastic program to even greater heights. It's bold and daring and takes numerous risks with its characters and its story (nearly all of which I've specifically avoided mentioning in this review), and the journey is all the more worthwhile because of it. Also, while focusing even more on the interrelationships of the primary characters than previous seasons, each episode still carries a thematic message that stands strong on its own. Refusing to rest on their laurels, Alan Ball, Alan Poul, and everyone involved with this season have crafted an exceptional season of television that is an absolute must for any fan of the series.
Unlike the first two seasons, this third season release is presented in an anamorphic widescreen 16:9 ratio, and as is typically the case with HBO releases, the video quality is largely fantastic. There is a very, very small amount of edge enhancement in a few places, and exterior shots often exhibit a high level of grain, but considering the original source material, there is almost nothing more that could be asked of this transfer. It captures the somewhat muted color palette very well and is a fitting presentation for this dark show. If I had any complaint it would be that some of the discs contain three episodes each instead of two, and while the difference in quality is negligible, there were a couple of places in the middle discs where I wondered if a higher bit rate would have helped. On the whole, though, this release looks better than just about any other television release with the exception of competing HBO sets.
The audio is a very nice Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that sparingly but effectively utilizes the surround channels. Like most series, this is a predominantly dialogue-driven show, and the dialogue is crisp and clear throughout, whether focused completely in the front center or utilizing the full surround spectrum.
The packaging for this set is artistic but leaves a little bit to be desired in terms of practicality. Each of the 5 discs has a beautiful image of a character from the show on the cover, and they snap into a standard 5-panel cardboard foldout. This piece folds up and neatly fits inside a sturdy cardboard case that is essentially a top and bottom half hinged at the upper spine with thick tape that bears the show's logo. It looks beautiful and nicely captures the style of the show, but the way it is taped together during production leaves room for slightly off-centered placement of the two halves, and in the case of my set, forces the box to bow just a bit in the center. Also, the tape on the inside of the case can easily come apart and interfere with the placement of the foldout.
As with most of HBO's releases, the animated menus on this set are absolutely stunning and perfectly capture the essence of the series.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
Also not unlike other HBO releases, this third season of Six Feet Under is low on the featurettes and heavy on the audio commentaries. The first commentary is from director Michael Engler on the 3rd episode of the season, "The Eye Inside". It's an interesting commentary for a director, since he rarely talks about the actual production of the episode and instead chooses to dedicate his time to the themes involved. I found as I listened to it that I really appreciated this approach, and it added even more depth to the episode. Episode 4, "Nobody Sleeps", contains a commentary from producer/director Alan Poul, and it's fantastic. As a producer on the show, Poul explains that he essentially had his choice of which episode to direct, and he goes into detail on why he chose this specific one. This commentary is very detailed and goes from start to finish without any breaks.
On "The Trap", the 5th episode of the season, writer Bruce Eric Kaplan provides his thoughts, and it is a nice change of pace to hear things from a writer's perspective. The commentary for episode 11, "Dead Works Overtime" with writer Rick Cleveland, is mostly innocuous and not overly interesting, which is disappointing, because it's such a strong episode. The final commentary is appropriately for the season finale, "I'm Sorry, I'm Lost", with the show's creator Alan Ball. This is predictably the best commentary on the set, and I could listen to Ball talk about this show for hours upon hours.
For a group of commentaries, it's pretty good but not stellar, and if you read the first few paragraphs of this review, you'll notice a certain episode missing from these features. The lack of any commentary on "Perfect Circles" is pretty disappointing, as this episode stands so strong as one of the best in the show's run. However, like a great piece of art, perhaps it is meant to stand alone without commentary. No, I don't really believe that, but it makes me feel better to type it.
The only featurette is on the final disc, and it's a 14-minute special on how they filmed the season's promotional piece for HBO. There isn't a great deal of depth here, but it is still pretty interesting, mainly because the promo itself is just so amazing. Also on this disc are 3 deleted scenes from various episodes that are out of context and not particularly interesting.
Finally, on the first disc, there is a short HBO promotional piece for their unique slate of Sunday night programming as well as a disheartening promotion for the brilliant but now cancelled Carnivàle.
The third season of Six Feet Under is not just a compelling drama that is achingly funny and bitingly insightful. It is art. Precious few television programs aspire to such levels of quality, let alone achieve them, and this series of 13 episodes is a rare achievement, even among its incredibly distinguished peers. With brilliant writing, inspired directing, magnificent performances from everyone involved, and hauntingly perfect musical selections, this DVD set is something truly special. Probably the darkest season of Six Feet Under to date and by far the most challenging for the viewer, this third season is also the most thought-provoking and most emotionally rewarding of the series, and it is that rare DVD release deserving recognition as part of the DVD Talk Collector Series.