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

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

Jeff Greenwald



Such a typically American funeral, with a body “preserved” in a box, is radically different from Asian death ceremonies. Buddhist rites often climax with cremation, or, in the case of Tibetan Buddhism, “sky burial,” a ritual in which the corpse is presented as an offering to birds and other animals. Ball, in the course of producing his show, “learned way more than I ever needed to know about what happens to bodies after we die.” He now wishes to be cremated. I ask if he’s ever seen a body burn. Indeed he has, during a trip to Bali.

“It’s interesting,” he laughs, “to look at my own karma. I run into funerals wherever I go. In the pilot episode of Six Feet Under, Nate recalls seeing a Sicilian funeral on a beach - that totally happened to me, when I was nineteen or twenty. Then there was Bali. And recently, when I went to Lebanon to visit my partner’s family, we came across the burial of the people who had died in that plane crash from Africa to Lebanon. I see a pattern there. It’s part of my work; it’s part of my karma. It’s part of what my consciousness is about.”

One of the most interesting aspects of Six Feet Under is its refusal to take a stand on the afterlife. The Fishers (or the families of the deceased) may lock horns over their individual opinions on the subject, but the show itself does not. Sometimes, though, the dead visit individual members of the Fisher family, acting as foils for their inner dialogues. At the end of the pilot episode, Nathaniel Fisher appears at his own funeral for a word with his daughter. There’s a delicious moment as, like the skeletal deity Chitipati, who dances upon charnel grounds, they chat up the benefits of being dead. Claire’s priceless remark: “No more waiting to die.”

“In the writers’ room, we envision that, when the dead speak, they’re not ghosts,” says Ball. “They are the dead person’s presence and memory and influence, in the mind of the person being spoken to.”

Ball personally believes in reincarnation, but insists that the show remain neutral. “That’s a personal choice that everyone makes,” he asserts. “It’s a mystery. It would be incorrect to have Six Feet Under say anything one way or the other.”

Confronting death and dissolution is never easy, even for monks. Most lay practitioners will never engage in extreme Buddhist practices like chöd, in which one meditates with corpses, camps in charnel grounds, or stirs up vivid images of one’s body in the process of decay. We will simply live our lives as best we can, balancing work and family with our NetFlix wish list and the occasional ten-day retreat.

The characters in Six Feet Under aren’t monks, either; they’re not even Buddhists. (Even Brenda, who surrounds herself with images of the Buddha and other protective deities, seems helpless in the face of her compulsions.) Still, their individual encounters with samvega—an urgent desire for liberation, inspired by a visceral encounters with samsara—are enormously moving and instructive. They illustrate Ball’s conviction that “for a lot of people, a life that’s filled with mistakes and tragedy and random messiness can be way more spiritual than a life of simple piety.”

At the very least, Six Feet Under demonstrates how Buddhist sensibilities are steadily entering our consciousness; so much so that, as Ball implied, they are becoming “instinctual.” It’s as if Ball himself is simply a vehicle for this process, the embodiment of a Zen koan about nondoing.

“I don’t feel like I’ve created these characters,” he states with conviction. “The show and its characters have a life of their own that is very real. Part of my job is to get out of their way and let them show me what they need to do.”

Jeff Greenwald, the Oakland-based author of Shopping for Buddhas and Size of the World, can be reached through www.ethicaltraveler.com.

Image 1: Alan Ball © Art Strieber, Courtesy of HBO
Image 2: David (left), Federico, and Nate greet mourners at the Fisher & Sons Funeral Home. © John P. Johnson, Courtesy of HBO
Image 3: Alan Ball on the Set, © Tracy Bennett, Courtesy of HBO

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