Dropping the Ball

The overrating of Six Feet Under.

David and Nate getting down to business

Damn you, Alan Ball! Damn your faux-dark (secretly beige), faux-shocking (actually soapy), faux-fearless (and yet self-congratulatory) tragicomic soul. Damn your Emmy-Award-dominating, sex-solves-everything, madness-is-sanity, worst-of-J.D.-Salinger philosophies. And damn you, most of all, for ruining cocktail conversation. For if I had a penny for every time someone used your show as shorthand for quality television, I’d have a bunch of really annoying change.

Now, to be clear, I love HBO, in all its taboo-busting bluster. And I admit a few things are perfectly fine about Six Feet Under: mainly David, the closety brother, played brilliantly by Michael C. Hall as an uptight sentimentalist with a sneaky streak of schmuck. Give him an Emmy, fine.

The subject matter is riveting, too, since death is a genuinely unexplored topic on television—but then, that’s also true of the themes explored on The Mind of the Married Man, an awful show that I’d argue may actually be better than Six Feet Under, if only because it is at least genuinely creepy and sad. It’s hard to grieve for corpses as cartoonish as Six Feet Under’s “deaths of the week”: bimbos, abusive cretins, poetic victims. And after two seasons, the ghostly Fisher father remains a notably unconvincing plot device of a character, complete with an array of conveniently dramatic “secrets.”

The Fisher family: Ally McBeal in mortality drag?

Despite its walking dream-corpses, Six Feet Under is not only not creepy—it’s not even mildly challenging. Part of this is because week by week, the writers inevitably make hyperbolic choices: The teen daughter, for instance, doesn’t merely have a prickish boyfriend; he’s a prickish, thuggish, druggie, brother-bereaved, suicidal, no no that’s not enough, how about Tarantino-esque bank-robbing boyfriend. In this season’s 13 episodes, the characters have been treated to violent mental illness, encounters with the Russian mafia, an errant shotgun, sex addiction, a brain tumor, a daughter Nate never knew existed, and a hit-and-run accident—a series of events so melodramatic they cease to be affecting.

Then there’s the saccharine drip of Californian psychobabble. Ball may satirize leftover hippies and encounter groups, but he regularly beats precisely the same thematic drums, making points as tired as any Tony Robbins seminar: Only with truth comes intimacy! There’s a difference between real love and mere co-dependence! Creativity and sexuality keep the child inside of us alive! Life is change!

Brenda, knocked off her soapbox this season

But my biggest gripe is the wise-child thing. Ball’s obsessed with them. (See American Beauty.) There’s Clare, the tough-but-tender teen wise child; Nate, prodigal wise-child hunk; cop Keith’s niece, an actual child who is grumpy yet wise—innocents all, with special gifts and special pain. But the poster child for wisdom is of course Brenda, a nightmare cross between Salinger’s Franny Glass and a discarded chapter from V.C. Andrews, complete with hot rapistlike brother. She’s everyone’s adolescent fantasy: the most special, most messed up, most talented, most doomed creature on earth. The fact that she’s played by the wonderfully charismatic Rachel Griffiths only adds to the annoyance. In fact, the only reason this season was at all bearable was that the show stopped treating Brenda as a voice of foul-mouthed Buddha wisdom—the tendency all last season—and sent her on a torrid spin into sex addiction. This added to the melodramatic plot lines but at least knocked her momentarily off her soapbox.

Let’s not even get going on the mom, who despite hand-waves of sympathy is—like her younger counterpart in American Beauty—the worst type of misogynist stereotype: an uptight, hysterical nag who needs to get laid.

Six Feet Under may have won an outrageous 23 Emmy nominations, but it’s really just Ally McBeal in mortality drag: dream sequences, romanticized narcissism, fake-o self-conscious dialogue, meaning-of-life montages and all. The characters may be grown-ups, but the show isn’t about death and mortality at all; it’s about adolescence—and not real, morally complex adolescence (the rich subject of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, perpetually snubbed at the Emmys) but creative adolescence, art that only pretends to take risks. Six Feet Under doesn’t wrestle with the moral issues it purports to raise; it just gropes them for a thrill.