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HBO presents
Six Feet Under: The Complete First Season (2001)

Nate: This business is a total racket.
Claire: What business isn't?

- Peter Krause, Rachel Griffiths

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: February 16, 2003

Stars: Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Rachel Griffiths
Other Stars: Freddy Rodriguez, Mathew ST. Patrick, Jeremy Sisto, Richard Jenkins, Joanna Cassidy, Robert Foxworth, Eric Balfour, Ed Begley Jr., Ed O'Ross
Director: Alan Ball, Miguel Arteta, John Patterson, Lisa Cholodenko, Kathy Bates, Rodrigo Barcia, Jim McBride, Allen Coulter, Jeremy Podeswa, Michael Engler

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, nudity, sexuality, drug use, violence, gore, disturbing imagery)
Run Time: 12h:02m:54s
Release Date: February 04, 2003
UPC: 026359913228
Genre: television


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A ABB+ B

DVD Review

The undertaking and mortuary business is, despite the publication of The American Way of Death four decades ago, is still somewhat shrouded in mystery and a subject of discomfort for most people. What Jessica Mitford tried to do with her book and its sequel, creator Alan Ball (American Beauty) does masterfully with his award-winning black comedy series, Six Feet Under. Collected on four discs are the thirteen episodes of the initial season, for those of us without HBO access and those who want to revisit these grimly funny episodes again and again.

The story centers on the problems of the Fisher family, which operates the Fisher & Sons funeral home in Los Angeles. Peter Krause stars as the prodigal son Nate, who comes home for Christmas one year and ends up staying when his father Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) is suddenly killed. The first season follows the rest of the Fisher clan, namely Nate's mother Ruth (Frances Conroy); brother David (Michael C. Hall) who has stayed in the business and sacrificed his own dreams, and younger sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose), as they try to cope with Nathaniel's death. But oddly enough, Nathaniel is never really very far away, and manages to frequently insert himself into a number of scenes and makes his presence felt despite his absence from life.

Despite the morbid topic and the mandatory stiff-of-the-week, the program is bitterly funny, with a sly wink to the audience. At the same time, since we're dealing with the primal fact of death, we may as well combine it with the equally primal and life-affirming concept of sex, which crops up quite regularly, both in straight and gay contexts that the homophobic may find offensive. Between the two, numerous serious questions on the nature of life and death are raised throughout, while still being highly entertaining. Much of this is due to the very talented cast, which works as a great ensemble together. While there is some quirkiness for its own sake, the characters are presented as well-rounded individuals that never cease to be interesting.

Episode 1: Pilot
Original air date: June 3, 2001

"Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined." - Ruth

As so aptly titled, this is indeed the pilot for the series and gets things off the ground, setting up the central relationships with ruthless efficiency. Nathaniel is dead within the first few minutes; Nate bonds to Brenda Chinoweth (Rachel Griffiths), a casual sex partner; David is revealed to be deeply closeted with his policeman lover Keith (Mathew St. Patrick); and Ruth's general instability is outlined. One of the most appealing bits in the pilot, unfortunately not sustained in the series, is the interruption of the program by mock advertisements for mortuary products, including one bearing the slogan "We put the fun into funeral!" An auspicious and highly entertaining start to the series. Four and a half coffins out of five sounds about right.





Episode 2: The Will
Original air date: June 10, 2001

"What, was he high? Why would he do that?" - Nate

When Nathaniel's will is read, everyone, including Nate, is shocked to learn that Nate has been left half of the business, together with David. The two immediately come to loggerheads, while the stiff-of-the-week is a scamming infomercial salesman. Nate learns some harsh realities about the family business, which the Kroehner funeral home chain threatens to put an end to if they won't sell. The setup continues here.





Episode 3: The Foot
Original air date: June 17, 2001

"Nate, I'm having a problem. You don't happen to have Mr. Romano's foot on you, do you?" - Federico Diaz

The stiff-of-the-week is a baker, chopped up in a bread maker. When Fisher employee Federico (Freddy Rodriguez) goes to assemble the parts, however, one of the pieces, a foot, turns up missing. Meanwhile, the decision is made to sell out to the Kroehners, but Nathaniel hasn't been consulted about this, and he's not happy. Some broad slapstick humor combined with the usual mordant wit makes this a real gem with a full five coffins.





Episode 4: Familia
Original air date: June 24, 2001

"No, it's not really a gang funeral; it's ... they needed a home, we needed a body. Everybody wins." - David

This week's stiff is Paco (Jacob Vargas), a Mexican gang member killed by a rival gang. While the air-conditioning goes out (a very bad thing in a house where you keep dead people), Brenda comes to dinner and Keith loses his cool over a homophobe. The stiffs that won't stay dead don't stop with Nathaniel though, as Paco returns to give David some much-needed business and personal advice. Highly entertaining and a winner of an episode that touches on serious issues without being dreary.





Episode 5: An Open Book
Original air date: July 1, 2001

"I don't think that we're ever going to have one of these touchy-feely, mother-daughter relationships like you see in the movies and TV because, you know what? They don't exist." - Claire

Having gotten thoroughly acquainted with the Fishers, the focus turns to Brenda's family, the seriously dysfunctional Chenowiths. In addition to manic-depressive and generally problematic brother Billy (Jeremy Sisto), Brenda's totally whacked psychiatrist parents Bernard and Margaret (Robert Foxworth and a delightful Joanna Cassidy) are introduced and they put Nate under the microscope. The cruelty is palpable and hilarious as we watch Margaret dissect Nate verbally. The stiff-of-the-week is a porn star, electrocuted in the tub, and David deals with religious issues and revelations.





Episode 6: The Room
Original air date: July 8, 2001

"What the hell did you do here? Who are you?" - Nate

Nate begins to discover that Nathaniel had a great many secrets, including a secret room that he traded for a funeral years ago. At the same time, he begins learning more about Brenda's secrets than he might have wanted to do. This week's stiff is an elderly black woman who peaceably dies in her sleep, oddly enough. The episode features a neat little homage to the notorious dream sequence in the third episode of Twin Peaks. The episode gives some nice depth to characters.





Episode 7: Brotherhood
Original air date: July 15, 2001

"Why are you so determined to sabotage our business?" - David

This week's stiff is a veteran succumbing to Gulf War Syndrome. This is one of the weakest episodes in the set, with Nate excessively intruding into the personal life of the deceased, making everything better in a drippy Touched by an Angel moment, totally at odds with the dark and cynical flavor of the series otherwise.





Episode 8: Crossroads
Original air date: July 22, 2001

"Nobody's ever who they seem to be." - Parker

Things perk back up again, though, when the business hits a serious drought. The stiff is a divorcee who gets her face taken off, and when she goes to Kroehner, Kroehner calls in Federico to moonlight. But can they pull him away from Fisher & Sons? Claire gets some positive emphasis as she takes on a Sierra Crossroads orienteering program and makes some unexpected discoveries about herself. Nate and Brenda's relationship also reaches a crossroads of sorts as Nate takes the Australian man sleeping with her less than well. Highly involving and entertaining throughout.





Episode 9: Life's Too Short
Original air date: July 29, 2001

"If you lose a spouse, you're called a widow or a widower. If you're a child and you lose your parents, then you're an orphan. But what's the word to describe a parent who loses a child? I guess that's just too f****** awful to have a name." - Claire

The stiff this time is a six-year-old boy who has a mishap with a loaded gun under mom's bed. When he comes to Fisher, issues arise since he's also the little brother of one of Claire's old boyfriends. David's new boyfriend turns him on to Ecstasy and mayhem ensues when Ruth accidentally takes it along with her on a camping trip. Things get a little preachy when dad shows up, but on the whole a well-done episode.





Episode 10: The New Person
Original air date: August 5, 2001

"You know something? I never worked in a funeral home that was this depressing." - Angela

Needing help, the Fisher brothers look for another assistant and come up with Angela (Illeana Douglas), who is technically skilled but uncomfortably outspoken, producing high tension in the repressed Fisher household. Things get really weird with Margaret Chenowith, who is in fine form, gleefully and incestuously creepy. The stiff this time is a terminally boring salesman offed by his wife with a frying pan (shades of Maggie and Jiggs).





Episode 11: The Trip
Original air date: August 12, 2001

"I think my expectations of this trip were a little high." - Nate

The brothers are off to the funeral directors' conference in Las Vegas, and Brenda comes along. David is scheduled to make a speech on the future of the independent funeral home that his father was originally scheduled to deliver. Ruth has difficulty in dealing with David's homosexuality, or more specifically his reticence about it, and tries to move beyond funereal flower arranging. David is having a hard time with his sexuality himself, which erupts into some bad moments in Vegas. The stiff this time is an infant dead of SIDS, which causes some emotional difficulties in the home.





Episode 12: A Private Life
Original air date: August 19, 2001

"No matter how nice you fix me up, I'm still going to hell and you know it. 'Cause you're going there too." —Marc Foster (Brian Poth)

When Marc Foster, a young gay man, is killed by homophobes (thus becoming our stiff) and the same malevolence is demonstrated in the church where David has become a deacon, he is forced to come to terms with himself and his faith. Tensions at Foster's funeral boil over, as does Billy's mental illness. A tense, deep and moving episode that really calls on the cast to bring forth some difficult emotions. Excellent work.





Episode 13: Knock, Knock
Original air date: August 19, 2001

"I certainly don't want to waste my time fighting a fight that cannot be won. But I don't want to just sit back and take it, either." - David

This episode continues the story from the preceding one, with Foster making continued appearances as David's tortured conscience, making hateful and gay-baiting comments towards him. David's difficulties with the church come to a head; Nate discovers something unsettling about himself while Claire makes some poor decisions. A fine conclusion to an excellent first season.





Highly recommended.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: In general, the full-frame transfer looks excellent. Color is natural, with good shadow detail, and well-rendered.blacks The main titles have quite a bit of compression noise around the lettering, however, and there are numerous examples of aliasing and shimmer throughout the series. A little more bit rate would have helped. As expected for a recent series, there is no visible damage to the picture.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrench, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 track sounds clear and fine, with nice surround activity that is subtle and unobtrusive. Dialogue is almost entirely center-oriented, and I really didn't detect any significant LFE activity. The music sounds terrific, though, with nice depth and texture.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 91 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
1 Deleted Scenes
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by creator Alan Ball
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Digipak
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Music tracks of title theme and Kid Loco remix
Extras Review: Some nice extras are included here. Each episode comes with its "previously on" lead-ins and "next on" tags on each episode's menu screen. There is not, unfortunately, a "play all" option on the discs. If one enters an episode from the chapter index, the Emmy®-winning main titles are skipped, which may be a positive for some viewers who are tired of them (though I'm still not). Speaking of the main titles, there is a separate documentary (15m:45s) just on the main title theme and the development of the evocative main title sequence that is fascinating. Less interesting is a puff piece documentary that is mostly promoting the second season, but containing some interview snippets with the cast along with clips from Season One.

Director/writer/creator Alan Ball provides a commentary for the first and last episodes (which he directed). Although at times he falls into the trap of narrating the episode, he does have some interesting remarks to make about the situation and the interplay of the characters. A set of cast and crew bios (with some films contained therein, but short of actual filmographies) appears on every disc, as does a convenient summary of each of the episodes to make finding a favorite one much simpler. Finally, there are music tracks of the theme song and the Kid Loco remix of it, as well as DVD/ROM weblinks. An admirable effort at a television series presentation. The packaging, on the other hand (which appears to be meant to evoke a casket) is needlessly complicated and fragile; be careful in opening the outer box if you want to keep it intact.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

The award-winning first season of one of the most highly acclaimed series in recent years hits disc in generally nice transfers and with some useful extras.

 


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