Big Mind, Small Screen: Six Feet Under's Alan Ball

Can a prime-time TV show take Buddhist sensibilities into the mainstream?

Jeff Greenwald

“Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme,” declared the Buddha in the Great Nirvana Sutra. “And of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”

Likewise: Of all situation comedies, I Love Lucy was the greatest; but of all prime-time series about impermanence, Six Feet Under is without peer. Nothing that has appeared on the small screen can compare with this quirky meditation on attachment, mortality, and—as series creator and Executive Producer Alan Ball puts it —“life, in the constant presence of death.”

Though it makes no claims, Six Feet Under is a great example of how dharma themes are infiltrating American popular culture—without any direct Buddhist connection. Most of the show’s twelve million-plus viewers will never attend a teaching or retreat, or travel to lands where the process of dying is viewed as an opportunity for liberation. Alan Ball’s series doesn’t pretend to instruct its audience about death. It simply lifts the veil from a subject too often viewed, in our culture, through filters of fear and ignorance.

Six Feet Under premiered on HBO in 2001, two years after Ball (who’d written previously for network sitcoms) won a Best Screenplay Oscar for his astonishing American Beauty. Like American Beauty, Six Feet Under deals with themes of transformation and redemption—with a darkly comic twist.

The series takes us into the lives of the Fishers, proprietors of a family-run funeral home in Los Angeles. In the pilot, Nathaniel Fisher, the family’s patriarch, dies instantly when his new hearse is broadsided by a city bus. The Christmas Eve tragedy leaves Fisher’s four survivors—his wife, Ruth; teenage daughter, Claire; and two adult sons, Nate (a free spirit, visiting from Seattle) and David (an anxious, closeted gay)—polarized and self-protective.

The show’s foundation is the interplay of the Fishers, as each family member struggles toward the core of his or her identity amid an ever-changing caravan of corpses. Friends and lovers fill out their circle, each seeming to embody a classic obstacle (or ally) in the path to liberation. David Fisher’s companion, Keith, is a black L.A. cop with anger issues; Nate’s lover, Brenda, is a hungry ghost, plagued by an insatiable appetite for sex and sensation. Young Claire wrestles with the blithe ignorance of her high school peers. At the center of this mandala, the three-story Fisher & Sons Funeral Home is an unflinching reminder of the destination awaiting us all.

Every episode of Six Feet Under opens with a death, and with each death the Fishers, managing the burial, are given a lesson in transformation. The funeral of a Mexican gang member becomes a teaching on compassion and reconciliation; the passing of an elderly black woman leads into an exploration of True Nature. Some deaths are peaceful, some sudden, some the result of long illness. But all remind us of the fact that, as Larry Rosenberg writes in Living in the Light of Death, “No one is guaranteed even one more breath.”

After three years of devoted fandom and intense discussions with my Six Feet sangha, I felt compelled to meet the force behind this extraordinary series. Alan Ball is a tall, contemplative man whose serious eyes are balanced by a large, infectious laugh. His understated office in the Sunset Gower studios is decorated with memorabilia from American Beauty and portraits of the Six Feet Under cast. The bookshelf is stacked with texts about death and dying, including several volumes by Thomas Lynch: a poet, philosopher, and funeral director.

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