The sublimely dark and gothic HBO drama Six Feet Under cleaned up at the recently announced Emmy nominations. Creator and Executive Producer Alan Ball’s show collected 16 nominations, including Best Drama, Best Actor (Peter Krause), Best Actress (Frances Conroy), and two nods for Best Supporting Actress (Lauren Ambrose and Rachel Griffiths).
If you haven’t yet caught the show, it centers around a family-owned funeral home in coastal California. The family patriarch dies in the series’ first episode, and the show focuses on the lives of his surviving family: his sons Nate and David Fisher (who run the business), his widow Ruth, and his teenage daughter Claire.
The show’s critical acclaim and awards are well-deserved. The characters are wonderfully flawed and complicated, made all the more interesting by the backdrop of death: They face same decisions the rest of us do with respect to relationships, friendships, sex, and family, but they carry out their day-to-day lives just a few steps from the inevitably of mortality carried out almost daily in their home. Each episode opens with a death vignette, usually someone unrelated to the show’s main characters, but who eventually becomes a Fisher “client,” and whose life, death or grieving relatives somehow color and underscore the ensuing episode’s themes.
If you have seen the show, you might be curious why National Review Online would publish a piece by a libertarian singing its praises. There are, after all, a number of openly gay characters and plotlines. Drug use abounds, copiously and unapologetically. There is rampant promiscuity, and enough purple language to blush a sailor. Family hour, it isn’t.
But there’s something else about the show that I’ve found surprising, and that should hold some appeal for conservatives. Alan Ball and his team of writers have shown a courageous willingness to challenge Hollywood orthodoxy on the subject of prenatal life, on the moral absolute of abortion rights, and on the soul-carrying capacity of a fetus. It’s probably a stretch to say the show is “pro-life,” or even “anti-abortion,” but it has at least been sympathetic to the idea that abortion is more than a mere personal choice rooted in identity politics — that it is a very real decision with very real consequences, and perhaps for parties other than just the woman who chooses to get one.
Perhaps the most evident example occurs in the last two episodes of the third season, which aired this past May. Claire Fisher discovers she’s pregnant with the child of an ex-boyfriend who became an “ex” after sleeping with his (male) art teacher. Given those circumstances, that she’s 18, and a first-year art-school student herself, she decides without much hesitation or deliberation to get an abortion. We see no evidence of belabored consternation or angst. She enlists the help of her brother Nate’s ex-girlfriend (played by Griffiths), who agrees to drive her to the clinic, no questions asked.
It’s at the abortion clinic that the show begins to diverge from traditional Hollywood portrayals of the issue. The director paints the abortion clinic remarkably frigid, sterile, and numb tones. The scene is shot with little color or depth. Claire’s emotionally detached throughout the scene, and the entire process smacks of a slaughterhouse, or as one critical reviewer put it, “a cattle-call.” Everything about the scene is spare, procedural, and devoid of all humanity — a reflection, perhaps, on the banality with which Claire made the decision in the first place. The doctors and nurses bring in one pregnant woman after another, evacuate their wombs, then send each on her way.
The weight of the abortion begins to bear down on Claire in the next (and last season’s final) episode. We see her visibly stress and eventually breakdown from her decision, or at least from the lack of thought that went into it. She’s asked to baby-sit her infant niece Maya, and the thought turns her stomach.
In the climactic scene, Claire dreams her own death, and visits her father in Heaven. We see visages of other characters who’ve passed on in the show’s first three seasons. After walking through a heavenly carnival with her father, Claire finds Lisa, her missing sister-in-law and mother of her niece Maya. They chat, and Claire begins to cry, realizing that Lisa’s no longer missing, but dead. But most surprisingly is that there, with Lisa, is the fetus/baby/pregnancy Claire aborted just days earlier — in the form of a warmly lit, smiling baby girl.
“You take care of Maya,” Lisa says, “and I’ll take care of her.”
The scene didn’t sit well with critics, most of whom otherwise adore the show. Boston Globe television critic Matthew Gilbert wrote:
Claire’s journey to heaven with her father was particularly awkward. It offered a poignant moment, as she sees her troubled former boyfriend, Gabe, finally at peace, but it also raised a gnawing question. Claire encounters her baby in heaven, supposedly the child she gave up a few weeks back in an abortion-clinic sequence that had horrific cattle-call overtones. By presenting Claire’s ‘’choice’’ as a baby, was Ball trying to make a big statement about fetuses and the morality of abortion? Or was he showing Claire resolve her own guilt, as the ghost of Lisa agreed to care for the ghost of Claire’s boy? It was a distracting issue.
On the entertainment site Popmatters, critic James Oliphant wrote:
An encounter with an effervescent fetus on God’s Staircase suggests a certain scattershot moral judgment, a busted compass. All Aborted Babies Go to Heaven? Is that really what the show wants to say? It makes you wonder to which side of the abortion debate, if any, the show means to tilt.
Whether the show’s writers intended to convey that Claire’s aborted fetus had a soul, or that she constructed a soul for it to alleviate her guilt, isn’t clear (we’re never really sure what happened to the boyfriend, either).
But it doesn’t really matter, either. The story arc represents a clear break from traditional Hollywood framing of the abortion debate. There on HBO — the network that produced the If These Walls Could Talk movies, not to mention a documentary on the most virulent, vigilante elements of the anti-abortion movement — the decision to have an abortion was shown to be one that comes with real, moral, weighty consequences. And it at least broached the prospect that a fetus is its own, separate person.
And that’s not the first time it’s happened.
In the show’s second season, Nate Fisher (engaged at the time) confronts an old flame (Lisa) who tells him she’s pregnant with his child — and that she’s choosing to have the baby. Keeping with the show’s habit of employing ghostly visions and apparitions, we later see Nate working late in his office. A little girl enters, about seven years old.
“Hi,” she says. “You killed me. It was about seven years ago, remember? You drove Lisa to have me killed.
Nate looks up, horrified.
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” she says, “I don’t harbor any bad feelings or anything. I’m pro-choice. Well, at least I would be, if I were alive.”
A little boy enters.
“You killed me, too! Actually, I was miscarried by the girl who worked at that Starbucks on Fremont. I don’t think she was ever planning to tell you about me.”
The little girl then takes Nate by the hand, and the two enter the Fisher living room. It’s filled with a dozen or so other kids he fathered that were either aborted or miscarried — all with real faces, real voices, real personalities. His mother (Ruth) then enters with a tray of cookies and milk, beaming first at Nate, then at the houseful of grandchildren she’s always wanted.
Again, the writers leave it to us to decide what to ultimately make of the scene. An affirmation of an anti-abortion position? Or merely the apparition of a character in conflict? Is it both?
That we’re even offered the opportunity to make such a decision — that the concept that aborted fetuses might have become real kids with bodies, voices, and opinions was ever delivered to us — is a welcome but aberrant gift from Hollywood.
Nate, incidentally, is so taken by the scene that he eventually marries Lisa, and for a while plays the devoting, doting father to Maya. But not for long. When Lisa leaves to visit her mother at the end of last season, he shares a kiss with an old flame, just a few feet from the baby. The writers punish him by killing Lisa off three episodes later.
I suspect many conservatives will no doubt miss this terrific drama due to its coarse nature, dark themes, and its forgiving portrayal of homosexuality.
That’s too bad. Because within that framework, Six Feet Under is in many ways one of the most morally instructive dramas on television. It’s rich with human frailty and failure, one of the many reasons why it’s so watchable and authentic.
But the show refuses to punish its characters for human failures, the kinds of lapses in judgment and temporary faults we’re all guilty of from time to time, the kind that make us mortal. It’s only when they refuse to take responsibility for those mistakes that Six Feet Under’s writers discipline their characters, often brutally.