‘Six Feet Under’ – life and death and everything between on Netflix and Max

Don’t be fooled by the title. Six Feet Under (2001-2005), HBO’s “other” acclaimed original series about death and family is really about life in all its complications.

Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall are Nate and David Fisher, brothers reunited when their father (Richard Jenkins), the head of a family undertaking business The Fisher Funeral Home, dies suddenly and leaves the business to the both of them. Prodigal son Nate returns home from Seattle, where he manages a health food store, to partner with David in the family business and reconnect with his mother Ruth (Frances Conroy) and little sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose). It’s quite a transition for Nate, something of a free spirit who fled all sorts of emotional ties along with the mortician trade and now leaves behind unresolved issues in Seattle in his homecoming. David, meanwhile, struggles with the conflict between his Catholic faith and his identity as a closeted gay man as he takes the reins as funeral director and guides Nate through the process of guiding grieving families through funeral process. They’re not exactly therapists (though it plays a role in the job), more like event planners with a side of crisis management.

The first season also introduces longtime employee Rico (Freddy Rodríguez), practically a member of the family as well as David’s essential right hand, and Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), the flinty daughter of a psychiatrist that David immediately starts dating. Jeremy Sisto costars as Brenda’s manic-depressive brother.

It’s a family drama that uses its distinctive setting as a lens. From the first episode, which takes us through the entire process from death to burial with all the confused emotions it brings to the grieving loved ones, creator Alan Ball (Oscar winning screenwriter of America Beauty) uses humor (some of it on the dark side) to mine raw emotions, frayed relationships, frustrations, and fears with moving compassion.

The first season won six Emmy Awards, including outstanding direction and guest actress (Patricia Clarkson), out of 23 nominations, and became the most celebrated HBO series since The Sopranos.

The second season doesn’t rest on the laurels of its freshman season. Nate struggles with his first serious commitment while his fiancée Brenda deals with her fears in anonymous sex. David continues his process of coming out of the closet and moves in with his boyfriend Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), a cop who still clashes with his judgmental father. Claire follows her muse as an artists, and continues to fall for troubled bad boys, widowed mother Ruth gets in touch with the sexuality she thought she’d lost long ago, and Rico takes a bigger role in the family business and the series as we explore his home life (Justina Machado costars his wife). Lili Taylor enters the series as Nate’s former roommate and sometime girlfriend Lisa and Patricia Clarkson appears as Ruth’s estranged sister, a free spirit with her own issues.

The third season opens with abrupt changes: Nate, having faced a mortal scare and survived surgery, marries Lisa, the mother of his child. Rico is brought in as a partner, which complicates relations in the family funeral business, David and Keith start couples therapy, and Ruth makes a new friend (Kathy Bates). Rainn Wilson co-stars as the very strange intern and James Cromwell joins the cast as the new man in Ruth’s life.

The fourth season opens on the aftermath of a death in the family and rebirth when Ruth remarries after a whirlwind courtship. Both events define the season as Nate comes to terms an unexplained death (with a surprising revelation that concludes the season on a shocking note) and Ruth discovers unknown facets of her new husband’s life. In one of the most harrowing episodes of the series, David is carjacked by a young hitchhiker, while Rico has an affair that breaks up his marriage and art student Claire stumbles across a new approach to her photography that earns her a solo exhibit. Michelle Trachtenberg guest stars as the snotty pop star who is Keith’s latest assignment as a bodyguard.

The series comes to a satisfying conclusion in its fifth and final season. Nate and Brenda struggle with their relationship as they prepare to become parents, David and Keith struggle to create their own family, Ruth struggles to care for her mentally unstable husband and Rico struggles with divorce and professional difference with his partners at Fisher and Diaz Funeral Home.

Six Feet Under developed into the most sensitive, complex, honest, and forgiving portrait of family dysfunction on TV. Creator Alan Ball uses humor to mine raw emotions, frayed relationships, frustrations and fears with moving compassion and dares to explore difficult emotions and the hurtful and self-destructive actions people do out of fear. Each episode begins with a death, but the show is really about life in all its complications.

There are also recurring roles by Joanna Cassidy and Robert Foxworth (as Brenda’s parents), Ben Foster, Eric Balfour, Justin Theroux, Illeana Douglas, and Bobby Cannavale.

It won nine Emmy Awards and three Screen Actors Guild Awards over its five seasons and 63 episodes.

Rated TV-18+

Also on DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Six Feet Under: Complete Series [DVD]

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There is commentary on select episodes and featurettes for each season. The original release of the complete series box set also features two bonus CD soundtracks (from the show’s distinctive score) and a commemorative booklet.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.