Welcome to W TV Club, in which W magazine chooses a television show they’d recommend you binge-watch. Our December picks will be a selection of series that center the idea of friends and family—which happens to be the theme for our latest print issue, Volume 6. This week, writer Rachel Simon recommends the HBO family drama Six Feet Under.
This past summer, after finishing a months-long, emotionally taxing, start-to-finish first-time viewing of The Sopranos, I found myself in need of a new show. Having just spent half a year watching mobsters cheat, gamble, and murder, I was craving something lighter—nothing dumb or forgettable, but calmer, easier to watch; basically, a series that, unlike its predecessor, wouldn’t give me a heart attack each episode. After some research, I found my answer: another HBO classic, Six Feet Under.
Six Feet Under, while certainly less violent than The Sopranos, isn’t exactly a relaxing watch. For one thing, there’s the simple fact that it’s a show about death. Every episode starts with a person dying, and things get increasingly morbid from there, with scenes set in embalming rooms and conversations about bullet wounds and bloodstains. But even if you can put all that aside, the series is just as much an emotional roller coaster as The Sopranos. Throughout its 63 episodes, the members of the Fisher family experience delirious joy and painful heartache; ecstatic breakthroughs and crushing defeat; exhilarating love and cruel, agonizing loss. And in none of Six Feet Under’s five seasons are those feelings more deeply felt, by both the characters and the viewers, than its last.
Over the course of 12 remarkable hours, the series’ fifth season takes fans through the full spectrum of human emotion, leaving us roaring with laughter one moment, gripping the edge of our seats the next, and sobbing into our pillows just a few moments later. There are the big events—weddings, pregnancies, adoption, and one shocking death—that contain the kind of hefty tales any show would want to leave an imprint in its final season. But it’s the smaller moments, too, that make the last episodes of Six Feet Under so effective: the way a depressed, grief-stricken Nate explodes over a bird trapped in the house; how George and Billy bond over the mental illnesses that have ruined relationships in both of their lives; the safe, if not blissful ignorance of Ruth as she camps with Hiram, unaware of imminent tragedy until it’s too late.
And then there’s the finale, an episode of television so acclaimed that every drama since has had its own ending compared to it. In “Everyone’s Waiting,” life moves on—until it doesn’t. Nate and Brenda’s daughter is born, Ruth and David slowly process their trauma, Claire decides to move to New York to pursue photography; even Rico finally settles down with Vanessa and their sons. The Fishers, after so much strife, come together for a lovely final meal before Claire’s sendoff that makes clear their love for each other runs deeper than any division.
But in the last few minutes of the episode, everything changes—creating a stunning meditation on hope and grief. It’s, hands down, the most beautiful conclusion of a TV show there’s ever been.
Watching the Six Feet Under finale, and all of season 5, I felt alive—deeply, truly alive, like Claire driving down the freeway with the wind in her hair and tears on her cheeks. I saw it as a brutal reminder of how life can hurt us, but also how it can heal us, often at the very same time. It made me want to grab the people in my life and tell them how I felt, because if the series taught me anything, it’s that life is short and time with the ones you love is sacred.
Six Feet Under wasn’t the calm, quiet show I thought it would be—far from it, in fact. But it was the show I needed, and the show I think everyone needs, whether they’ve seen it during its original early ‘00s run or are discovering it for the first time, like I did. Watch it when you’re feeling down, or when you’re on cloud nine. It’ll hit just as hard either way.