Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Swedish Look at Six Feet Under

I rarely watch TV, but every once in a while I get hooked on a good series and follow it religiously. Twin Peaks, The X-Files, A Touch of Frost, and in recent years, Six Feet Under. Swedish national TV just finished airing the fourth season. It's a lavishly produced American drama series revolving around a small family-run funeral home in the suburbs of San Francisco. Top-notch writing and acting. Every episode begins with someone dying, their corpse and mourners ending up at the funeral home.

Such a setting may seem outré in itself, but the writers also go out of their way to transgress almost every conservative value in the book. They apparently hold very few things sacred, including friendship, love, loyalty and common humanity. The series is aimed squarely at Democrats and counterculture aficionados. Six Feet Under is full of gay sex, straight sex, extra-marital sex, recreational drug use, profanity, adultery, promiscuity and blasphemy. But it also explores no end of relationship issues: marriage, divorce, re-marriage, aging boomer dating, gay cohabitation, parenting, siblinghood, friendship, co-workerhood, mental illness, and, of course, the death of your loved ones.

I thought I might point out a few things about the series that strike a Swede like myself as exotic. They seem to map the writers' assumptions about their intended (clearly primarily American) viewers. The funny thing is that a lot of material that must be pretty shocking to the home audience just passes by unnoticed by secularised Swedes.
  • The importance of family. Even this shocker series doesn't question the importance of family ties. Nobody united by family can have a lukewarm relationship here. Myself, I'd have to check the phone book to find out exactly where my kid brother lives.
  • The importance of religion. Yeah, I know, Americans. Religion is a really big issue. The viewers are assumed to believe in a higher power of some kind, but not to be orthodox about it. Atheism is rarely mentioned but tends to be portrayed as unfulfilling for its adherents. Conservative Christians are ridiculed.
  • Single custody of children after divorces. In Sweden, the children of divorced couples generally live half of the time with either parent. Single custody is a last resort when something's really wrong.
  • The ubiquity of cannabis. I'm 34, and I can count the times I've actually seen pot on the fingers of one hand. But in Six Feet Under, people of all ages get stoned more often than J.R. Ewing used to drink bourbon in Dallas.
  • Mortuary display. In San Francisco, apparently all corpses are embalmed and tarted up for public viewing. At Swedish funeral services, the coffin is closed as a rule, and embalming is rare.
In the first season, there were a lot of daydreamy or magical-realism scenes where dead people would move around and talk to the main characters. Not in a spooky horror-flick way, mind you, but edgy and disconcerting nonetheless. Sadly, there's been far less of that lately. I blame some too-literal-minded focus group.

In its fourth season, Six Feet Under was still gripping and fun. But I like it weird and gripping and fun.

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Blogger Martha said...

Yeah, we've been devoted viewers of Six Feet Under too, and I mourn the loss of some of the more imaginative stuff they were playing with in the first season. I've also lost a certain amount of interest in just how much trauma they put this one family through, which says the writers are really reaching for material. As far as the social issues, the show is definitely skewed toward a liberal audience, although my conservative church going Dad watches it too. It has its own peculiar addictive quality (oh, and I was also a big X-Files fan, except for the last couple of seasons).

22 April, 2006 04:52  
Blogger Martin said...

Oh, The X-Files really went downhill. The way Scully never seemed to remember anything paranormal that happened to her. Mulder's irritating habit of running around in scary places on his own while chatting to Scully on the cell phone. Her irritating habit of hanging around her lab in a white coat, waiting for him to call. But it was really fun in the beginning.

All must pass. I should probably download a few Lost episodes.

22 April, 2006 17:41  

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