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

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

Jeff Greenwald

The central characters on Six Feet Under mirror Ball’s growth. At the end of the first season, Nate Fisher (who suffers from severe headaches and nausea) is diagnosed with arterio-venous malformation (AVN), a mysterious disorder affecting blood vessels near the brain. Though AVN commonly goes undetected - causing little or no harm - the vessels can potentially rupture at any time, leading to a stroke or sudden death. Despite this Damoclean sword, Nate strives for deeper intimacy with his lover. The series thus becomes, for characters and viewers alike, a form of maranasati—the death-awareness contemplation studied in Theravada monasteries.

“Had I not been doing work of this nature,” Ball admits, “it would have been harder for me to face my own mortality. If the sitcom I created for ABC (Oh Grow Up) had become a hit and been syndicated for a gazillion dollars, and the main point of my life had become about being funny, I would have been less inclined to get into the muck of a meaningful life in this culture.

“My work is, for me, a spiritual discipline. I’ve been very blessed in that I’ve been given situations in which I can actually write about living life meaningfully.”

Ball’s evolution has made him one of the most celebrated screenwriters in America. I ask if his meteoric success within the Hollywood milieu has been an obstacle to his own spiritual progress.

“It’s very seductive,” he admits. “But whenever something happens to me, something else happens that puts things into perspective. The year I won the Oscar for American Beauty, I had also created Oh Grow Up, which was universally loathed and reviled. One critic said it was actually 'painful’ to watch. One issue of People magazine listed the Best and Worst of 1999.’ On one page were the Ten Best Movies, including American Beauty. If you turned the page, they listed the Ten Worst Television Shows—and Oh Grow Up was one of them.

“I was very glad that happened. Because if you’re going to do work that’s meaningful—even if only to yourself—you have to maintain a certain level of humility and not take yourself too seriously. It’s okay to take the work seriously—but not yourself.”

In an interview, Ball observed, “We live in a culture that goes out of its way to deny mortality. And I think you have to have a deep and fundamental acceptance of mortality to really be able to see what’s beautiful in life - because beauty and truth are inextricably connected.”

Equating truth with mortality is an accurate view, but it’s one that many Americans don’t share. “Yet it is true,” says Ball. “We die. And to live in a culture where people have surgery to avoid looking like they’re aging, because we don’t value wisdom as much as we value young skin—well, it seems hilarious.” The absurdity is carried infinitely further, of course, when the compulsion to preserve appearances is carried into the grave. In one episode, a porn star’s sudden demise reveals the extremes of such attachment, as Federico—the funeral home’s virtuoso reconstruction artist—props up the woman’s flopping silicone breasts with cans of cat food.

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