Six Feet Under: Episode 1
Conspicuous Mediation in Six Feet Under
In this media saturated world, there is a deeply rooted desire for the forms of media to be undetectable. In the year 2001, electronic readers are developed in an effort to eliminate the hassle of print books. The first iPod is sold as an inconspicuous way to integrate music into everyday life. Advancements in film technology and digital special effects take realism in film to a new level with the release of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and the filming of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002), the first feature film shot completely on HD digital cameras. Virtual reality continues to evolve and immersive theme parks are extremely popular. One of the long-term goals of television has always been to integrate the stories it tells into its viewers’ everyday lives. It strives to reach the point where the physical television becomes a reality rather than a piece of furniture. Yet along with the desire to have a truly invisible mediation, there is an underlying need to recognize reality in contrast to simulation. It is not necessary for the form of a television show to be inconspicuous in order to engage viewers. In fact, it is common for audiences to take pleasure in acknowledging the medium. As pointed out by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin in their book Remediation, since technology has become second nature in our culture today, media itself can provide its own authentic, engaging experience (42).
In 2001, HBO began its five season run of the show Six Feet Under, a drama that tells the dark comedic stories of a family running an independent funeral home. In seeming paradox to the desire for the televisual form to be undetectable, Six Feet Under engages its viewers by drawing attention to its form and inviting them to interact with the narrative in the context of television. The pilot episode itself demonstrates a keen ability to draw viewers in while also distancing them from the medium.
In the opening title sequence, the pilot of Six Feet Under makes its audience immediately aware of the televisual form. As the camera pans down from a blue sky to reveal a grassy landscape foregrounded by two hands breaking apart, a vignette framing becomes noticeable. This blurring of the image’s corners draws attention to the center of the image and reminds us that the frame we are seeing is a construction, not reality. While vignetting is often used for creative effect, it is also a common, unintended result of certain camera settings or film projection. Either way, it draws attention to the mediation of the television during the opening sequence and foreshadows the artificial nature of the recorded stories that the viewer is about to witness.
Even though the technology of media evolves so that the form itself can become undetectable, the creators of Six Feet Under chose to capture the series on Super 35 film rather than with high-definition digital cameras like most television shows today. While the use of film allows for a more dynamic depth of field, a richer gradient of color, as well as the detailed and beautifully textured representation of skin, it also draws attention to the imperfections of film as a medium for representing reality. There is a grainy quality to the image that would not exist digitally and the frequent use of shallow depths of field becomes noticeable. In one instance near the beginning of the episode, Ruth Fisher is chopping vegetables in the kitchen just before discovering her husband’s death. We see Ruth foregrounded in the frame and her middle-aged son David blurred out behind her. While this use of depth of field is common when recording on film, it does not replicate the way our eyes actually see the world around us. No matter how hard we try to focus on David, the image has labeled him as secondary in the frame and we are not allowed the ability to visually focus on him. The predetermined focal point draws our attention to the artificiality of the television and its subjective camera.
Immediately after the opening title sequence, the viewer is thrown into a fake commercial for a high-end hearse. Ads for fictional products, such as the Millennium Edition Crown Royal Funeral Coach and Living Splendor Embalming Fluid, are placed approximately every twenty minutes during the show, the same interval in which real commercials would air. Since the viewer is watching a show on HBO where there are no commercial breaks, the ads in Six Feet Under are not an expected part of the viewing experience but rather serve to highlight the unusual yet integral role that commercial television plays in all programming. Not only are the ads for fake products, but the same products are also integrated into the visual and narrative aspects of the show, making the viewer acutely aware that this world is comprised of fictional products and characters.
Television, along with cinema, is deeply rooted in its temporality. While art forms such as painting or sculpture do not rely on time, television series fundamentally exist in time as they recount events one after the other. Yet the televisual form also has the ability to tell events out of order, something we are not able to experience in reality. In the pilot of Six Feet Under, this nonlinear form of storytelling occurs frequently. For example, during a service at the funeral home, David is shown shaking the hand of a tall, blonde woman. As the woman walks away, the camera tracks into a close-up of David and he screams at the top of his lungs. The camera then immediately cuts back to the previous shot of David greeting the blonde woman, but this time he remains calm as the camera tracks into an extreme close-up, as if to indicate that the previous sequence of events was a daydream. This jarring experience of travelling back in time to the previous shot also draws attention to the media rather than its potential reality. One could describe this nonlinear narrative as a form of magical realism, the blending of both the supernatural and reality.
Another form of magical realism that appears in the pilot of Six Feet Under is the characters’ apparent ability to speak with the dead. As Nate Fisher looks down on his father’s body at the morgue, the morgue attendant transforms into his father. The two proceed to carry on a conversation, but with the unusual caveat that in every shot where we see his father speak, we also see him lying dead on a table. When Nate recognizes his father in the attendant’s face, the shock he displays reflects how uncomfortable the viewer feels by seeing a living and dead representation of a character simultaneously. This simultaneous image of death and life is unusual and unrealistic, despite the realistic frame of the narrative.
The pilot of Six Feet Under also defamiliarizes its viewers to the inherent existence of editing in television. In most television shows, a fade-to-black is used to signal a major transition or the end of the show. This technique simulates the blink of an eye, bridging two times and locations. It is as if the viewer momentarily fell asleep and woke up somewhere new. Rather than fading to black, Six Feet Under fades to white during major transitions. A white screen creates a negative space and calls to attention the absence of an image. While an apparent world of complete blackness exists in nature, one merely has to close their eyes or turn off the lights to experience it, a world of complete whiteness is a construction of television. The only time we are offered a completely black screen during the pilot episode, it is defamiliarized by the visual effect of a television turning off. We see the image get sucked into the center of the screen along with the whirring buzz of the electricity being cut as if an old television set were being powered down. The audience is never given the satisfaction of an undetected fade-to-black. They are instead shown the unnaturalness of a medium they would usually consider familiar.
While each method described above is distinct, there is a common thread that ties many of them together. Whether it is the fade-to-black transitions, non-linear narratives, heavily stylized shots, or the physical use of film during production, these characteristics could be found in cinema long before television became prevalent. This mixing of both mediums can be described as uncanny, as it fosters a feeling of uncertain familiarity. Television and cinema are both heavily integrated into daily life but when they are combined, we are drawn to notice their formal similarities and differences as we attempt to separate the two. Six Feet Under is often described as an example of cinematic television, a form of televisual storytelling that makes use of techniques associated with cinema. Its cinematic elements are in contrast with televisual elements such as the fake commercials.
Another trope of television that Six Feet Under uses, in contrast to its cinematic elements, is a serial death-of-the-week. In serial television shows, each episode is created to stand alone as well as reveal overarching character development and plotlines when watched in sequence. It is common to have a monster- or crime-of-the-week, a short narrative that can be introduced and resolved in a single episode. Six Feet Under opens each episode with a death that is then used to frame the story of the Fisher’s and their funeral home. While in the pilot of Six Feet Under the death is Nathanial Fisher’s, other episodes are framed by the funerals of previously unknown characters. The use of this serial style juxtaposed with the often cinematic methods used in the series forms an uncanny composition. The viewer is defamiliarized to the methods of both television and cinema, drawing our attention to the ways they are pieced together.
While the combination of television and cinema is yet another effort to make mediation invisible, it merely accentuates our perception of the specific mediums. And this approach of combining media does not stop with the melding of television and cinema. For example, as Charles McGrath points out in his essay “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel,” weekly network dramatic series borrow many of their formal elements from literature, forming a new genre he dubs the prime-time novel (243). Also, cinema continues to borrow from computer media as films such as Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) take visual effects to a new level of realism. These paradoxes are both engaging and fascinating for audiences, drawing them into a narrative by highlighting its form. Despite the methods borrowed from film, Six Feet Under is not a film and nor is it reality. It is television and it will not let us forget it.
Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.
McGrath, Charles. “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel.” New York: The New York Times, 1995.
“Pilot.” Six Feet Under. Writ. Alan Ball. Dir. Alan Ball. HBO, 2001. DVD.