Six Feet Under is an American drama television series created and produced by Alan Ball. It premiered on the premium cable network HBO in the United States on June 3, 2001 and ended on August 21, 2005, spanning five seasons and 63 episodes. The show depicts members of the Fisher family, who run a funeral home in Los Angeles, and their friends and lovers. The series traces these characters' lives over the course of five years. The ensemble drama stars Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Freddy Rodriguez, Mathew St. Patrick, and Rachel Griffiths as the show's seven central characters. The series was produced by Actual Size Films and The Greenblatt/Janollari Studio, and was shot on location in Los Angeles and in Hollywood studios.
Six Feet Under received widespread critical acclaim, particularly for its writing and acting, and consistently drew high ratings for the HBO network. Regarded by many as one of the greatest TV dramas of all time, it has since been included on TIME magazine's "All-TIME 100 TV Shows", as well as Empire magazine's "50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time" list. It has also been described as having one of the finest series finales in the history of television. It won numerous awards, including nine Emmy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, and a Peabody Award.
The show stars Peter Krause as Nathaniel Samuel "Nate" Fisher, Jr., whose funeral director father (Richard Jenkins) dies and bequeaths to him and his brother, David (Michael C. Hall), co-ownership of the family funeral business. The Fisher clan also includes widow, Ruth (Frances Conroy), and daughter, Claire (Lauren Ambrose). Other regulars include mortician and family friend, Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez), Nate's on-again/off-again girlfriend, Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths), and David's long-term boyfriend, Keith Charles (Mathew St. Patrick).
On one level, the show is a conventional family drama, dealing with such issues as interpersonal relationships, infidelity, and religion. At the same time, the show is distinguished by its unblinking focus on the topic of death, which it explores on multiple levels (personal, religious, and philosophical). Each episode begins with a death – the cause of which ranges from heart attack or murder to sudden infant death syndrome – and that death usually sets the thematic tone for each episode, allowing the characters to reflect on their current fortunes and misfortunes in a way that is illuminated by the death and its aftermath. The show also utilises dark humor and surrealism running throughout.
A recurring plot device consists of a character having an imaginary conversation with the deceased; for example, Nate, David, and Federico sometimes "converse" with the deceased at the beginning of the episode, while the corpse is being embalmed, or during funeral planning or the funeral itself. Sometimes, the characters converse with other, recurring deceased characters, most notably Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. The show's creator, Alan Ball, avers that this represents the living characters' internal dialogues expressed in the form of external conversations.
Although overall plots and characters were created by Alan Ball, there are conflicting reports on how the series was conceived. In one instance, Ball stated that he came up with the premise of the show after the deaths of his sister and father. However, in an interview, he intimates that HBO entertainment president Carolyn Strauss proposed the idea to him. In a copyright-infringement lawsuit, screenwriter Gwen O'Donnell asserted that she was the original source of the idea which later passed through Strauss to Ball; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, proceeding on the assumption that this assertion was true, rejected her claim. Ball stated in an interview,
The show focuses on human mortality, the symbiotic nature of life and death feeding off of each other and the lives of those who deal with it on a daily basis. When discussing the concept of the show, creator Alan Ball elaborates on the foremost questions the show's pilot targeted:
Six Feet Under introduces the Fisher family as the basis on which to explore these questions. Throughout its five-season, 63-episode run, major characters experience crises which are in direct relation to their environment and the grief they have experienced. Alan Ball again relates these experiences as well as the choice of the series' title, to the persistent subtext of the program:
Exteriors for the Fisher home were shot at 2302 West 25th Street and the intersection of Arlington Avenue, in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles. In Season 5, episode 1, Rico mentions that he grew up "in West Adams, near where I work."Peter Krause as Nate Fisher – Eldest child, in search of meaning while facing the prospect of his own death.
Michael C. Hall as David Fisher – Middle child, coming to terms with his homosexuality.
Frances Conroy as Ruth Fisher – Matriarch, emotionally repressed and trying to form a new independent life.
Lauren Ambrose as Claire Fisher – Youngest child, rebellious and creative.
Freddy Rodriguez as Federico Diaz – Business partner of the Fishers, a family man.
Mathew St. Patrick as Keith Charles – David's on-off significant other, a member of the LAPD.
Rachel Griffiths as Brenda Chenowith – Nate's on-off significant other, who struggles with depression.
Jeremy Sisto as Billy Chenowith – Brenda's younger brother, who has bipolar disorder. (starring season 1, recurring seasons 2–5)
Justina Machado as Vanessa Diaz – Federico's wife; Licensed Vocational Nurse. (recurring seasons 1–4, starring season 5)
James Cromwell as George Sibley – Geology professor; second husband to Ruth. (recurring season 3, starring seasons 4–5)
Richard Jenkins as Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. – Patriarch of the Fisher family, who dies at the start but appears in dream sequences and flashbacks. (seasons 1–5)
Joanna Cassidy as Margaret Chenowith – Brenda and Billy's psychologist mother. (seasons 1–5)
Tim Maculan as Father Jack – Priest at the Fisher's family church. (seasons 1–5)
Eric Balfour as Gabriel Dimas – Claire's high school boyfriend; chronic drug user. (seasons 1–3)
Robert Foxworth as Dr. Bernard Chenowith – Brenda and Billy's psychiatrist father. (seasons 1–3)
Ed O'Ross as Nikolai – Boyfriend of Ruth when she worked as a florist. (seasons 1–2, 5)
Marina Black as Parker McKenna – A friend of Claire's during high school. (seasons 1–2)
David Norona as Gary Deitman – Claire's counselor. (seasons 1–2)
Gary Hershberger as Matthew Gilardi – Employee of a major funeral home organization who attempts to buy out Fisher & Sons. (seasons 1–2)
Ed Begley, Jr. as Hiram Gunderson – Had an affair with Ruth while she was married to Nathaniel. (seasons 1, 5)
Illeana Douglas as Angela – Temporarily replaced Federico in Fisher & Sons. (seasons 1, 5)
Patricia Clarkson as Sarah O'Connor – Ruth's younger sister; an artist who lives in Topanga Canyon. (seasons 2–5)
Lili Taylor as Lisa Kimmel Fisher – Nate's former roommate; his first wife and mother of his daughter Maya. (seasons 2–5)
Aysia Polk as Taylor Charles – Keith's niece, who is under his care for season 2. (seasons 2–3)
John Paul Pitoc as Phil – Claire's boyfriend briefly; works at the crematorium. (seasons 2–3)
Kellie Waymire as Melissa – a high class prostitute who Brenda befriends. (season 2)
Nicki Micheaux as Karla Charles – Keith's sister and Taylor's mother; a drug addict. (season 2)
Julie White as Mitzi Dalton-Huntley – Employee of a major funeral home organization who attempts to buy out Fisher & Sons. (season 2)
Kathy Bates as Bettina – Sarah's friend and caretaker who becomes a good friend of Ruth. (seasons 3–5)
Peter Macdissi as Olivier Castro-Staal – Claire's Professor at art school; lover to Margaret Chenowith. (seasons 3–5)
Ben Foster as Russell Corwin – Boyfriend of Claire's during art school. (seasons 3–5)
Brenna Tosh and Bronwyn Tosh as Maya Fisher – Nate and Lisa's young daughter. (seasons 3–5)
Rainn Wilson as Arthur Martin – A young intern from mortuary school who works for the funeral home. (seasons 3–4)
Justin Theroux as Joe – Brenda's neighbor and boyfriend during season 4. (seasons 3–4)
Idalis DeLeón as Sophia – Exotic dancer who Federico has an affair with. (seasons 3–4)
Catherine O'Hara as Carol Ward – Lisa's boss; a neurotic motion picture producer. (seasons 3, 5)
Sprague Grayden as Anita Miller – Claire's friend from art school. (seasons 4–5)
Peter Facinelli as Jimmy – Claire's friend from art school and one-time lover. (seasons 4–5)
Mena Suvari as Edie – Free-spirited lesbian artist and friend of Claire's from art school. (season 4)
Michael Weston as Jake – Homicidal meth addict who assaults David. (seasons 4–5)
Tina Holmes as Maggie Sibley – Daughter of George; has an affair with Nate. (seasons 4–5)
Matt Malloy as Roger Pasquese – Keith's employer for season 5; a movie producer. (seasons 4–5)
Julie Dretzin as Barb – Lisa's sister. (season 4)
Jeff Yagher as Hoyt – Lisa's brother-in-law. (season 4)
Michelle Trachtenberg as Celeste – A pop star under Keith's security. (season 4)
Bobby Cannavale as Javier – Keith's colleague. (season 4)
Chris Messina as Ted Fairwell – Lawyer at Claire's temp office job and her boyfriend during season 5. (season 5)
Kendré Berry as Durrell Charles-Fisher – Adopted son of David and Keith. (season 5)
C. J. Sanders as Anthony Charles-Fisher – Adopted son of David and Keith. (season 5)
Anne Ramsay as Jackie Feldman – Brenda's colleague and friend. (season 5)
The series was created by Alan Ball, who also served as executive producer and showrunner for the entire series run. Robert Greenblatt and David Janollari executive produced the series, as The Greenblatt Janollari Studio was one of the production companies. The other producers were Lori Jo Nemhauser and Robert Del Valle.
The writing staff consisted of creator Alan Ball, who wrote nine episodes over the series run, including the pilot episode and the series finale. Writers who were on staff for the entire series run included Rick Cleveland, who wrote eight episodes and became an executive producer in the fifth season; Kate Robin, who wrote eight episodes and became a supervising producer in the fifth season; and Bruce Eric Kaplan, who wrote seven episodes and became an executive producer in the fourth season. Christian Williams was just on staff for the first season, writing two episodes. Both Laurence Andries and Christian Taylor wrote three episodes each during their run on the series for the first two seasons, and they also served as producers. Scott Buck and Jill Soloway joined in the second season staying on staff for the rest of the series, and each wrote seven episodes. Buck became a co-executive producer in the fourth season, and Soloway became a co-executive producer in the fifth season. The last set of writers to join the staff were Craig Wright and Nancy Oliver in the third season. Wright wrote six episodes and became a producer in the fifth season and Oliver wrote five episodes and became a co-producer in the fifth season.
Creator Alan Ball also directed the most episodes, directing the pilot and each of the season finales. Dan Attias also directed six episodes, from season two to five. Kathy Bates (who also played Bettina on the series), Michael Cuesta, Rodrigo García, and Jeremy Podeswa each directed five episodes. Michael Engler, Daniel Minahan, and Alan Poul (who also served as an executive producer for the series) each directed four episodes. Miguel Arteta directed three episodes and Nicole Holofcener directed two episodes. Single-episode directors included Peter Care, Alan Caso, Lisa Cholodenko, Allen Coulter, Adam Davidson, Mary Harron, Joshua Marston, Jim McBride, Karen Moncrieff, John Patterson, Matt Shakman, Alan Taylor, Rose Troche, and Peter Webber.
The series' main theme, written by composer Thomas Newman, won a 2002 Emmy Award for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music and two Grammy Awards in 2003 for Best Instrumental Composition and Best Instrumental Arrangement.
The production sound from seasons three through five was mixed by Bo Harwood, and was nominated in 2004 for a Cinema Audio Society Award.
Seasons two through five featured a promotional teaser trailer prior to the premiere of that season. The songs featured in each seasons trailer were "Heaven" by Lamb for season two; "A Rush of Blood to the Head" by Coldplay for season three; "Feeling Good" by Nina Simone for season four; and "Breathe Me" by Sia Furler for season five, which is also used for montage in the series finale. All these songs are included in either of two soundtracks for the show.
The episode recaps for the first two seasons feature the song "Nothing Lies Still Long" by Pell Mell. The episode previews for the first and fifth seasons feature the Six Feet Under title theme, while the other seasons feature the Rae & Christian remix version of the title theme.
Music supervision for the entire run of the series was provided by Gary Calamar and Thomas Golubic, who were also credited as producers for the two soundtrack albums.
At the 2002 Primetime Emmy Awards, the series received 23 nominations for its first two seasons, including a nomination for Outstanding Drama Series. Series creator Alan Ball won for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for the pilot episode and Patricia Clarkson won for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. The rest of the ensemble cast, including Michael C. Hall, Peter Krause, Frances Conroy, Rachel Griffiths, Freddy Rodriguez, and Lauren Ambrose all received acting nominations. Guest actors Lili Taylor and Illeana Douglas received nominations in the guest acting category. The series received 16 nominations at the 2003 Primetime Emmy Awards for its third season, including a nomination for Outstanding Drama Series. Peter Krause, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Rachel Griffiths, James Cromwell, and Kathy Bates all received acting nominations. Alan Poul was nominated for directing for the episode "Nobody Sleeps", and Craig Wright was nominated for writing for the episode "Twilight". The series received 5 nominations at the 2005 Primetime Emmy Awards for its fourth season, including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Frances Conroy. The series received 9 nominations at the 2006 Primetime Emmy Awards for its fifth and final season. Patricia Clarkson won for the second time for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series, and Peter Krause, Frances Conroy, and Joanna Cassidy received acting nominations. Alan Ball was nominated for writing and directing for the series finale episode "Everyone's Waiting".
For the Golden Globe Awards, the series won for Best Drama Series in 2001, and received nominations in 2002 and 2003. Peter Krause was nominated for Best Actor in a Drama Series in 2001 and 2002. Rachel Griffiths won for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries, or TV Film in 2001, and received a nomination in 2002 in the Lead Actress category. Frances Conroy won for Best Actress in a Drama Series in 2003.
For the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the cast won for Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama Series in 2002 and 2003, and received nominations in 2001, 2004, and 2005. Peter Krause was nominated for Outstanding Male Actor in a Drama Series in 2001 and 2003. Frances Conroy won for Outstanding Female Actor in a Drama Series in 2003.
The series won a Peabody Award for general excellence in 2002 "for its unsettling yet powerfully humane explorations of life and death."
All five seasons are available on DVD in individual box sets and in a collected volume.
Two soundtrack albums, featuring music that had appeared in the series, were released:Six Feet Under, 2002
Six Feet Under, Vol. 2: Everything Ends, 2005
Ball, Alan (2003). Alan Poul, ed. Six Feet Under: Better Living Through Death. ISBN 978-0-7434-8065-9.
Akass, Kim; Janet McCabe; Mark Lawson (2005). Reading Six Feet Under: TV To Die For. I. B. Tauris. ISBN 978-1-85043-809-0.