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

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

Jeff Greenwald

When American Beauty was released, much was made of the film’s Zen underpinnings—especially the scene where a simple plastic bag, dancing in a vortex of wind, is seen as a paradigm of perfection. Yet Ball, surprisingly, has no real Buddhist practice of his own.

“I’ve never been formally introduced to Buddhism,” he reflects. “It’s almost as if I have an instinctive predisposition toward it. I’m not very disciplined. I have a hard time meditating, but I keep trying to chip away at my resistance. But I do lean toward that discipline more than any other because, from what little I know of it, it seems to make the most sense.”

Ball, forty-six, was raised a Methodist in Georgia. His introduction to Buddhist sensibilities arose—like Siddhartha Gautama’s—from direct confrontation with mortality. “When I was thirteen years old,” he says, “my sister died in a car accident. It was her twenty-second birthday. She was driving me to a music lesson; I was in the car with her. That brought me face to face with tremendous loss, and the impermanence of things. I struggled for years and years with how to cope with that—and, ultimately, I started developing an innate sense of detachment.”

I ask Ball if he feels that the mere act of watching Six Feet Under can be a liberating experience, a way of coming to terms with our national denial of death.

“I would hope so,” he replies. “Working on the show has certainly been a liberating experience for me.”

“Has it helped you resolve any of your own issues regarding mortality? For your sister or for yourself?”

“It has. I was so wounded by my sister’s death that I was afraid of intimacy, of getting close to another human being, because they might die on me. So I poured myself into my work. And I was alone for many, many years. Even though I can’t possibly say that I’ve erased all my fear and anxiety about death, I’ve certainly erased any denial that it does indeed exist—and that it will happen to me.”

Ball speaks with joy and optimism about his current relationship, which represents a huge step away from his terror of loss and dissolution. His ability to love is based not on repression of the truth, he says, but on an appreciation that all committed relationships exist within the confines of mortality—and the utter certainty that they must eventually end.

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