There are some that will make the case that Americans are currently living in their second golden age of television, with the first being, I don’t know, the late 50s/early 60s? After years of sneering at prime-time television, I find that I’m in the same boat as many others in all of a sudden having at least 4 or 5 shows I’m watching either weekly (thank you TiVo) or on DVD. Leading the way, of course, are the HBO shows – many of which (“Deadwood”, “Extras”, “Big Love”, “Rome”) I’ve never even seen, since I don’t pay for HBO. A couple weeks ago my wife and I watched the final episode of the fifth (and final) season of HBO’s “SIX FEET UNDER” – and amazingly, I was able to steer clear of any and all spoilers this entire year, so everything that happened hit me like it hit those of you who watched it the night it aired many months ago.
I resisted admitting this for a couple years, but I’m ready to say that “SIX FEET UNDER” is/was my very favorite of all the HBO shows, including “THE SOPRANOS” (I’m only now working on Season 1 of “THE WIRE”, so verdict’s out on that one but leading indicators are excellent). It is probably the best friggin’ soap opera of all time, and it most certainly was a soap opera. When I watched the first episode of Season 1 long ago, 60-some-odd episodes ago, I was ready to stop the investment in time right then and there. Did you see this one? The one with the fake commercials for funeral products? Awful. But they rebounded so quickly, and enveloped me into the characters’ lives so fast, that by mid-season 1 I was totally hooked. We’d watch 3 hour-long episodes at a time fairly often, but it was more common to watch one at a time, and give each episode time to sink in after much discussion & speculation.
Initially the character that grabbed me the most was Claire, but she quickly became so annoyingly over-the-top & hateful to her whole family that five years later she was my least-favorite character. I don’t think it was the actress’s (Lauren Ambrose) fault; this is the character they wrote for her, and she played her lines really well and with “feeling”. But I don’t believe anyone could be so flippant and condescending ALL the time, with only momentary flashes of humility. So I gravitated to the Nate/Brenda story, and then when the character of Billy was introduced – the incestuous, bipolar, dangerous freak Billy – woo hoo! I was stoked that so many of those early episodes included Billy freak-outs, and when he came back from the asylum as a kinder, gentler Billy, he was no less compelling. Great – and 100% believable – character.
At the end I wasn’t sure what they were going to do with everybody. Was Brenda going to die during childbirth? Would David flip out over the guy who kidnapped and almost killed him? Would Claire marry the Republican dude? Hey, I’m not gonna spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it. But “SIX FEET UNDER” was seriously one of the all-time high-water marks of American television, certainly movie-quality, week-in, week-out. And for once, proclamations about truly great American TV are something that are starting to not sound so ridiculous when spoken or typed, which is something that had never happened in my lifetime until right about now.