Six Feet Under as a Novel
28 April, 2011
Last week I had a fine lunch with Charles Cowling, editor of the Good Funeral Guide. Charles compared SFU to a great novel.
I agree with him. Every era generates its own artistic masterpieces in new formats. Nobody is going to write something on the scale of War and Peace or Crime and Punishment today.
Like a great novel, SFU has shaped my consciousness. Before SFU, my sheltered English existence had never exposed me to portrayals of sex addiction, bi-polar disorder or self-help plans like est (The Plan). Before SFU, I’m not sure I could have stomached watching men kiss on screen or human beings being dismembered in baking machinery.
To me the series explains what it means to be a sensitive human being in the C21st.
It shows the limitations of organised religion and the virtues of enquiring spirituality. It shows the advantages and disadvantages of running a family business and the sharp practices of corporations.
The sufferings of Nate, Ruth and David suggest that despite all material and scientific progress, the human condition is often absurd, difficult and sad.
My love of the series was intensified by my move to Bournemouth. The similarities of backdrop inspired me to reject the town’s limitations and superimpose a vision of how the area should be. Claire, Nate, Billy, Olivier, Russell and Brenda would go to galleries and hang out with creative and artistic friends. I set up BoMoCreatives in 2006 as a way to find and nurture such a community in Dorset, with great success.
The series inspired in me an interest in psychotherapy – I’ve read lots of Irvin Yalom – a witty Californian psychotherapist, who deals with the problems of death-anxiety in a similar spirit to SFU. The rigidity and awkwardness of the Fisher family was terribly English. Alan Ball had a gift for focusing on the raw matters in life, that up to that point, we’d never mention.
In SFU, it’s laudable to be creative, unstable, impetuous, sexually adventurous and ambivalent about drugs. It’s against certainty and for experimentation.
I tried to point out to my erstwhile Conservative friends, that the characters tend to gravitate, as far as they can, towards independence and self-knowledge – usually finding contentment working for themselves rather than within organisations. And the heroine ends up marrying a Republican. The term ‘new age’ often means impractical and unhinged, but I think SFU made ‘new age’ respectable.
Claire’s experiences temping illustrate to me the frustration that a sensitive person feels at the painful compromises life often demands, but SFU, while acknowledging that life is often lonely and we all have serious defects of character, underlines the importance moving forwards and looking inwards for inspiration and fulfilment.