Six Feet Under at 20: A look back at HBO's groundbreaking drama

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Lynette Rice
·12 min read
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Everett Collection

In TV, as in life, failure breeds success. When his ABC sitcom Oh, Grow Up was yanked off the schedule after just 11 episodes in December 1999, Alan Ball — who would go on to win an Oscar for writing American Beauty — was free to write a spec script for HBO about a maladjusted family who operates a Los Angeles funeral home. By tackling death head-on, Six Feet Under broke new ground for dramas — and its themes resonate all the more powerfully today.

ALAN BALL (creator): My sitcom was on the bubble. I got a call from Carolyn Strauss, who was then [senior VP] of original programming at HBO. Over lunch she said, "I always had this idea of doing a show about a family-run funeral home." Something in my head just went click, because I spent a fair amount of time in funeral homes when I was a kid. There was a period where people were dropping dead left and right. [Ball's older sister Mary Ann was killed in a car accident when he was 13.] My show at ABC got canceled; I did not want to go back into that world, so I wrote the pilot over the Christmas holidays. Their notes were basically "The whole thing feels a little bit safe. Could you just make it a little more f---ed up?" I was like, yes. After spending so many years in network television, I was making everybody safe and nice.

After what he describes as a "charmed" development process at the network, Ball assembled a mesmerizing group of actors to play the dysfunctional Fisher family: Richard Jenkins as Nathaniel (who — TWO-DECADE-OLD SPOILER ALERT — dies in the pilot); Frances Conroy as his tightly wound wife, Ruth; Peter Krause as the prodigal son Nate; Michael C. Hall as closeted son David; and Lauren Ambrose as free-spirited teenage daughter Claire, who's high on meth when she learns of her dad's death. Rounding out the cast were Freddy Rodríguez as the staff mortician Rico; Mathew St. Patrick as David's boyfriend Keith; and Rachel Griffiths as Brenda Chenowith, a bohemian woman who shags Nate after meeting him on a flight.

Oral History with 'Six Feet Under'

Two decades after the Fisher family welcomed us into their (funeral) home, we look back at Alan Ball’s enduring exploration of mortality, vulnerability, and the importance of seizing the day.

PETER KRAUSE (Nate Fisher): I had done two seasons of Sports Night and was disappointed that it didn't get picked up for a third season. Only about a month and a half went by before I was auditioning for Six Feet Under. Alan brought me in to read for both Nate and David, and couldn't make up his mind. As luck had it, he really liked Michael Hall, who was the perfect choice for David. So the character of Nate swung my way.

MICHAEL C. HALL (David Fisher): I was in the midst of doing my first Broadway job, playing the Emcee in Cabaret that Sam Mendes directed. It coincided with the release of American Beauty [which Mendes directed]. So there was something serendipitous, as far as the Sam Mendes-Alan Ball connection. I knew from the minute I read it that it was going to be something special, as long as the people that got to make it didn't mess up.

LAUREN AMBROSE (Claire Fisher): I was a kid. I had the feeling that Alan was really rooting for me in the screen test. We went out to the hallway and he said, "Okay, this time just really play up that you're so f---ed up, like feel the experience of this drug coursing through your veins." I've never smoked crystal meth! I wanted the job so badly.

BALL: I did fear that we would never find our Ruth. We saw a lot of really talented women, but Ruth is so specific. Then Frances Conroy came in, and she was wearing a hat like we made her wear for when she gardened on the show.

Brooke Nipar for EW

FRANCES CONROY (Ruth Fisher): He also loved the pink shoes I was wearing, and the anklets. Ruth was an aging flower child and found comfort in singing some of a Joni Mitchell song that was so much a part of her younger life. She was a woman with a marriage that was essentially dead.

BALL: I remember we were shooting the scene in the pilot where Ruth breaks down at Nathaniel's grave, like snot coming out of her nose and everything. I needed to get another angle, but Frannie had done this amazing feat of emotional nakedness. I was like, "Frannie, I'm so sorry, but can we do one more?" She's like, "Oh, yeah!" She's fearless. We could have given her a script that said "Ruth eats a puppy," and she would have been like, "I've never eaten a puppy. Let me figure that out."

RACHEL GRIFFITHS (Brenda Chenowith): I had the same reaction to Brenda that I had when I read for Rhonda in Muriel's Wedding. I literally thought that it was written for me. I had such a crush on Peter. I used to blush, like, literally every timeI came to set.

Brooke Nipar for EW

FREDDY RODRÍGUEZ (Federico "Rico" Diaz): I worked with Alan on Oh, Grow Up. I only did four episodes. It was a bomb. But as every episode got worse and worse, American Beauty was released and became a phenomenon. The sitcom is canceled, but Alan wins an Oscar. About a month later, Alan invited me to a party at his house and I noticed I was the only person who wasn't a series regular on the sitcom. About a week later, I get the script for Six Feet Under and thought, "That's odd. I was just at his house and he didn't mention anything." So I auditioned, I got it, and then I think it was on our first day of shooting when Alan pulls me to the side and says, "I wrote this with you in mind." It was one of the first times you saw a normal Latin American family that didn't embody any stereotype. We were hailed in our community as groundbreakers.

HALL: I did spend some time talking with someone from my mom's hometown who was the funeral director. But for the most part, it was an imaginative leap.

KRAUSE: It was one of the most perfectly cast families on television. You just bought that Richard and Frances would have these exact three kids.

GRIFFITHS: Those women were not defined by who they f---ed or how they were seen by the men in their lives.

CONROY: People watched the show in tribes, it seemed. The story brought a sense of community in the telling each week. The audience could identify with at least one of the characters in each episode.

AMBROSE: Claire was Alan's proxy in writing the story. He was the youngest in his family, and he had a lot of Claire in him.

Brooke Nipar for EW

HALL: I feel like viewers rooted for David and Keith. They definitely had the most stable relationship. [EW was unable to reach St. Patrick for an interview.]

BALL: I did want David and Keith's relationship to be of equal importance as Nate and Brenda's. In fact, one of the notes that I got for the second season from HBO CEO Chris Albrecht was "You've got to make Nate and Brenda as sexy as David and Keith."

KRAUSE: Nobody had dealt with life and death [on TV] outside of M*A*S*H and wartime.

GRIFFITHS: America wasn't in a conversation about death. Human frailty was not at the forefront of the American conversation. If anything, we were at a moment where we were hurtling toward this toxic masculinity. There was not a lot of room to say, "I'm not coping."

BALL: I picked Los Angeles [as the setting] because it was familiar. But it also felt like the world capital of death denial.

Five million viewers tuned in to watch the first episode of Six Feet Under on June 3, 2001, makingit HBO's largest-ever series premiere to date. One of the show's hallmarks was how each episodebegan with a fatal accident or tragedy so Fisher & Sons Funeral Home would have its next customer. For inspiration, Ball and his writers often relied on the Darwin Awards website, which lists all the stupid ways people die. And yes, it still exists.

BALL: It started to become clear on the show that the first person you see in the [episode] is the one who is going to die. We started thinking, "Well, [viewers] think they're going to die this way, but we'll figure out a way to do it differently." We were trying to stay one step ahead.

KRAUSE: One of the most terrifying ones is the wife who finally got fed up with listening to her boring husband and gives him a frying pan to the back of the skull.

Brooke Nipar for EW

HALL: The woman who sees the blow-up dolls floating and thinks it's the Rapture!

AMBROSE: There was the one where the toilet ice falls out of the airplane. It was so bizarre.

RODRÍGUEZ: I just remember being on a plane afterwards and using the restroom while thinking, "Is this going to fall on someone?"

CONROY: That number of deaths over a five-year span is a lot of mortality to deal with.

Brooke Nipar for EW

Over its four-year run, Six Feet Under won nine Emmys, including a best directing win for Ball. While Krause, Hall, Conroy, Ambrose, Griffiths, and Rodríguez all received Emmy nominations for their performances, none of them took home a trophy — which still kills us. When the decision was made to end the show after season 5, Ball knew that Nate was not long for this world because of an arteriovenous malformation found in his brain in season 1; he would die in "Ecotone," the ninth episode of the last season. Initially, though, Ball wasn't sure how he would end the Six Feet saga.

BALL: Somebody in the writers' room just said, "We should just kill everybody." I laughed, and [someone] said, "No, seriously, we should be with every major character at the moment when they die. We should go into the future for that." I was just like, Of course. There's no other way for the show to end.

KRAUSE: I think Alan ending the show when he did elevated the entire series into a work of art because it did end too soon. That's the pointof the show. Your life can be taken away from you at any moment.How are you going to live your life?

GRIFFITHS: There's no more extraordinary last [seven] minutes of television ever than the last [seven] minutes of the last episode of Six Feet Under. Sia, who we'd never heard of, was discovered in that montage of everybody dying. [Sia's song "Breathe Me" plays over the sequence.] I literally died of boredom because I could not listen to my brother Billy [played by Jeremy Sisto] for one more second.

BALL: We didn't want all of [the deaths] to be funny. We wanted them to all be meaningful and honor the character.

HALL: David was sort of making the transition from here to the beyond and had this vision [of Keith], but yeah, he had a stroke.

Brooke Nipar for EW

AMBROSE: It was this long wake and funeral that we had to shoot. I got to grieve the thing that I was leaving and say goodbye to all of the people and the work that I got to do. That's the episode that everybody talks about to me still and says, "Oh, you left us with this beautiful ending."

CONROY :It was difficult to be in all the scenes. It was so strange and vacant and lonely. The last 15 minutes of the story took everything to a surreal level of heightened reality. I couldn't bring myself to look at Ruth as she was made to appear in her final moments. I had to give myself that leeway and inhabit her without seeing how she was made to appear.

RODRÍGUEZ: There is a period between that last scene in the present and the moment in the future where we all died. If there was ever a spin-off, I would imagine it would happen in that period. What do you think the spin-off should be? Federico did go off and start his own funeral home, you know.

KRAUSE: I think everyone who worked on the show started reexamining how they were living their lives. Now with this pandemic, everybody has the opportunity to examine how they're living their life. The isolation that everybody's experiencing is unprecedented, certainly in our lifetimes.

GRIFFITHS: It's been very interesting how many messages I've gotten this year from people in lockdown saying they've rewatched Six Feet Under. It's really interesting what we want to watch during a pandemic. I guess a show that really thinks about death in quite a profound and absurd way is just as relevant as it was 20 years ago. It's a privilege to be part of something that is still being talked about.

BALL: It was successful enough, although at the time the audiences weren't that big. It didn't really get huge numbers. But critics and people liked it. And once it started showing around the world, it really became somewhat of a phenomenon. You know how it is in Hollywood: You're as good as your last thing. So for a while, I was a golden boy. But then I made a movie that tanked, and I was no longer the golden boy. People always tell me it's the best ending to a series ever. This show felt like it lived the amount of time it was supposed to live.

Hear more from the SFU cast and producers at their PaleyFest LA reunion moderated by EW's Lynette Rice, available March 29 on Paley Center's Yahoo! Entertainment platform.

A version of this story appears in the March issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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