Today marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Six Feet Under, one of HBO’s early prestige hits, and one that helped establish the network’s brand as a purveyor of truly original quality television. Created by Alan Ball just after writing 1999’s American Beauty, the unconventional family drama focused on the Fishers, whose funeral home — and clientele — fueled a five-season rumination on life and death (mostly death). During its run, the show was nominated for 53 Emmy Awards, winning nine, and more importantly concluded with what many consider to be one of television’s greatest-ever series finales, capped off with an extended montage featuring each of the main characters’ last moments of life, set to Sia’s “Breathe Me.”
It’s an incredibly emotional conclusion to what was already a deeply emotional show, which is why I’m not (totally) embarrassed to admit that when I spoke to Ball on the phone this week about Six Feet Under’s legacy, I got choked up in the middle of a question about the finale. But he understood, and was gracious about discussing not just why one key line of the last episode is such a gut-punch, but also why he wanted to keep making television even after receiving an Oscar nomination, the one thing he’d fix if he had a chance, and the incredibly wild idea he’s mentioned before about a Season 6 concept that didn’t end up happening — probably for the best.
There’s so much to talk about when it comes to the show and its legacy, but I wanted to start off by asking you about the lead-up to creating the show because you, of course, had just had this big success with American Beauty. What was that period of time like? What were you looking to do after having gone through the American Beauty experience?
BALL: Well, it was pretty surreal, that time. I was also running a sitcom on ABC called Oh, Grow Up that, in all the ways that American Beauty was successful, Oh, Grow Up was not successful. Literally, there was a People Magazine best-and-worst-of edition for that year, and there was a list of 10 best movies, and American Beauty was one of them. And you literally turn the page, and on the other side is the 10 worst TV shows, and Oh, Grow Up was one of them.
Fortunately, what came out of that was that Oh, Grow Up was canceled, and I still had two years left on my TV development deal. And I had already met with Carolyn Strauss from HBO, and she had pitched the idea for Six Feet Under to me, and I thought, “That sounds like such a great idea. I wish I could work on that, but I’m doing this sitcom for ABC.” But after the show was canceled, I had two more years left on my TV deal, and I thought, “I’m just going to write that funeral home show and hope that they like it.” And I did, and they did, because otherwise I was getting all these phone calls of like, “We have this stand-up comedian that would be perfect for you to build a show around,” because people still thought of me as the sitcom guy. And I just didn’t want to do that anymore.
For me, writing the Six Feet Under pilot on spec was a little bit of a preemptive strike. I knew that HBO wanted a show about a funeral home. So I just wrote the show that I would want to watch on HBO. That was right around the time where The Sopranos had just started airing. And I, like everybody else, was totally in love with it and kind of amazed at what television could be that I just hadn’t thought it could be. So that’s what I did.
Was there any question about you staying in the feature world and not going back to television? Especially after having gotten an Academy Award nomination.
BALL: Like I said, I had signed a three-year TV development deal, and I didn’t want to be a person who was just like, “Oh, well, my signature means nothing.” I had made a commitment, and I had cashed their checks. So I felt like to just blow off the TV thing and say, “Oh, I’m a movie writer now,” would be kind of dishonorable. And in retrospect, I think it was the smartest thing I could do because I got to direct and produce the pilot and several episodes of Six Feet Under that, in a way, was for me going to film school because I never went to film school. The only experiences I had were in four-camera sitcoms and traditional theater. I don’t know that I would have gotten that if I had just pursued features.
At the same time, doing five years of a show is… That’s the closest I’ll ever come to writing a novel. Not that I wrote every episode of the show, I’m not saying that, but… I have no regrets in terms of what I chose to do at that time.
Image via HBO
So I rewatched the pilot for purposes of preparing for this interview, and the thing that really strikes me about it is how much work you put into really not just setting up the characters in this world, but also future storylines. In terms of building it, how much were you thinking about things like “this is something that could pay offin Season 3”?
BALL: I didn’t have a really elaborate show bible. What I do with every pilot I do is I try to open as many doors as possible so that they’re there, that you can go through them and do stories in the future should you want. But also — I didn’t know this at the time, but I know this now — you can be prepared for all kinds of things about where you think the show is going to go, but once you get it on its feet and you start having actors perform it and you start filming them and editing them, things will change. There’ll be chemistry that you didn’t expect to happen that is happening, and you’re like, “We need to go there.” There will be chemistry that you hoped would happen, and it doesn’t. So you just sort of go like, “Okay, well, we’re not going to go down this road.”
One of the things I really love about doing TV, as opposed to just being the sole writer of a screenplay, is the collaboration and the fact that you have so many people there with their own experiences and things that they’ve learned and things that are meaningful to them and traumas they’ve had to survive. If you have a good group of writers and a good, healthy writers’ room, it’s just great. It’s just so great that you can find so many stories to tell that I never would’ve thought of on my own.
In terms of the things that changed from your original expectations, what were some of the bigger surprises?
BALL: I think I probably was surprised by how important Claire’s journey as an artist became to the show. I think I was… I don’t know. I find myself thinking I really wasn’t surprised. But there was tons of stuff, like I said, that came out of the collaboration that was stuff that I had never… Certainly, the idea of killing everybody at the end of the show was not my own. And I remember I fought it, when I thought it was just like we were just being nihilistic in terms of like, “Oh, whatever…” Because I think it was pitched as there was a nuclear strike in Los Angeles, and I was like, “No, we’re not going to do that.”
But then once I realized, as we were talking about it around the table, that, no, we’re just going to make a point of being with each of these characters at the moment when they stop living, I sort of went, “Well, of course, how else could you end this show? That’s the perfect way to end this show.”
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I mean, absolutely. I’m glad you mentioned the nuclear strike, because it is something I remember you talking about in the past — I think the term you used during a Tribeca panel was “a post-Holocaust Season 6.”
BALL: Yeah. There was talk of doing that, and I was just like, “Well, I can’t do that. I love these characters too much. I don’t want to put them through that.”
But I do want to hear a little bit more about that, if only to prove to my coworkers that I’m not making it up.
BALL: No, it was definitely pitched that there was a nuclear strike, and it was a post-apocalypse. And at that point, it also, it seemed like, would become a different show because what are they going to like… Is the funeral home going to bury like thousands of bodies? No. The business suddenly is going to become pointless, and it’s just all about survival, or do you want to survive or what? And it also just seemed so bleak to me that I couldn’t see spending a year of my life putting that story together.
There was also… I mean, there was a pitch for Ruth [played by Frances Conroy] to develop Alzheimer’s and, over the course of several seasons, for her to lose her facilities. And I just didn’t want to go there either. It just didn’t feel emotionally right to me. Yes, of course, that happens in life. Yes, of course, this is something that people deal with. But I don’t want to ask Franny to do that. I don’t want to watch that. I just wanted… I felt like they should live to the fullest of their capacities until they stop living.
Image via HBO
Yeah. Just for clarity, when it was decided that Season 5 would be the last season?
BALL: I knew it was the last season going into it. I called HBO, and I said, “Five years is enough for me, so I’m going to be stepping down at the end of this season when my deal runs out.” And they said at the time, “Well, we’ll just end the show because we don’t want to do it without you.” Now, years later, when I made the exact same phone call for True Blood, they said, “Okay, well, but that show’s doing too well. It’s doing really well for us, so we’re going to find someone… We need your help in picking your successor.”
Also, the thing is, I don’t think people remember this, but during its original run, there was a lot of critical success, but in terms of the audience for Six Feet Under, it was not that big during its first run. I think it’s really discovered a… It’s really found a lot of audience in the years since, definitely through DVDs and now through streaming.
It’s one of those things where these young whippersnappers, they don’t have access to what we had in terms of TV criticism on the internet back then. Like, back then there was a lot of talk, I remember, about David and the dog.
BALL: Yeah, that was a very polarizing episode.
But I think with streaming, people don’t necessarily have that discourse to engage with anymore. And so it’s a very different reaction.
BALL: Well, there’s so much now. There’s so much. And I hate this word, but it seems apt for a lot of it, is there’s so much product. There’s so much content. It’s a little overwhelming. I feel like back in the day, I was reading a couple of books at the same time, as a metaphor for my television watching, whereas now it’s like I’m just like speed reading things that are just coming at me too fast for me to keep up with.
Yeah. Another aspect of the show that’s lost with streaming is that for three out of the five seasons, Six Feet Under was a summer show. Did that have an impact at all on how you approached the show? Was that something you thought about?
BALL: No. I remember HBO calling and saying, “We’d like this show to play during the summer.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” I think it cut our hiatus short that year, and I was like, “Well, I’m not too crazy about that.” But I’m either cursed or blessed in that I don’t really think about how the show performs. I get so lost in the making of the show and actually working with people to create the show. Once they’re done, I’m sort of done.
When I was running a show for a network, I didn’t even pay attention to the ratings, which was problematic for a lot of people, I think. But one of the great things about being on HBO, yeah, we would get overnights, and we would get ratings and stuff, but I didn’t really know what they meant. And I didn’t… I knew that the show didn’t live or die on what they were. The show lived or died on basically people’s response to it, critical response. And luckily, we did well in that regard.
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I want to go back a little bit to the finale… Let me see if I can get through this without crying, because I cry every time I rewatch the finale.
BALL: Me too.
Okay, I’m glad we’re on the same page there. So you were talking about how Claire’s journey as an artist is really important… I’m really sorry, I’m not going to get through this without crying. But in rewatching the finale for this interview, Ghost Nate’s line to Claire, “You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone”… That really hit me.
BALL: You don’t have to apologize. I totally get it. It’s heartbreaking. That is a heartbreaking line.
Yeah. But it’s so interesting in comparison to what you just said about Claire’s journey as an artist, because that’s where the show sort of ends, with her taking that step.
BALL: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we have to leave everything we love because that’s just the nature of reality. That line, “You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone,” I can’t remember… is sort of a paraphrasing of a tenet of some kind of Buddhism that I was reading in one of my books about Buddhism, about how you can’t hold onto things because you never really had them to begin with, which is esoteric and weird. And you could spend, as I have, hours and hours and hours of meditation trying to make sense of that. But I’m really touched that it affected you so emotionally because it comes from that deep and emotional place in me and in the other writers of the show. I mean, it’s true. We lose everything we love, including ourselves.
Image via HBO
Yeah. But what’s so interesting is having it in direct parallel, as we were talking about, Claire’s journey as an artist. Claire pursuing photography despite that.
BALL: Yeah, exactly. You have to do it despite it. There’s the Buddhist concept of groundlessness: there’s no solid ground beneath your feet. And a lot of what I’ve studied and read is about how liberating that is. I’m still struggling with that one. But yeah. I mean, it’s that question. We’re going to die, so what do we do? Do we just give up and not do anything? No, of course not. We do everything we can while we can.
And that, for me, is why the show struck a chord in as many people as it did, because that’s something that we all share and that we all struggle with. It’s not something that we talk about around the water cooler at work. So much of our life is about not looking at that, not looking at that reality because how else can you live? But the fact that the show sort of would peek at that reality and occasionally look at that reality, I think a lot of people found it a weirdly comfortable place to be. And also, I think anybody who’s ever lost somebody really close to them, I think, the show had a different meaning for.
A lot of TV shows are about death in some sense, but Six Feet Under took it on in a really different way. Looking back on the five years of making it, do they feel like they were different than other years of your life, just because you were focusing in on this one topic so much?
BALL: Just me personally, I think it felt to me like it was therapeutic, working on the show. And by the end of those five years, I thought, “I’ve really made great strides in my acceptance of mortality.” And since then, I’ve realized, “No, I haven’t.” That was just wishful thinking on my part. I still hate it. I still hate that it’s going to happen. I’m still terrified of it, just like everybody else is.
But spending eight hours a day in a room with really smart, funny, interesting, complicated people talking about the ways that death impacts our lives, and writing about characters whose business is death, I think it gave me a false sense of security that maybe I’ll achieve again at some point.
I think, like you said, it’s one of these great unanswerable mysteries. And just the act of discussing it is probably the first really important step.
BALL: Yeah, yeah. Thinking about that line, “You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone,” I think the reason that it’s so heartbreaking is because it just really acknowledges that we lose everything. Everything that is meaningful to us and everything that we want to hang onto and everything we want to mark by taking a picture of is… We can’t hold onto it. And I think that’s just really sad. That’s just really, really sad.
Yeah. But at the same time, how do you feel about the fact that this show is destined in some way for a kind of immortality that, even 20 years ago, probably didn’t feel very realistic?
BALL: Right. I love that the show is available for people to watch and that people will continue to discover it, and hopefully, it will continue to speak to people in a way that makes me feel like I was part of something that was very meaningful. I love that. I mean, that’s great. Yeah. Back then, I never thought, “Oh, well, there’ll be a day where you can just watch this whenever you want, and people all over the world are going to watch this show, and a lot of them are going to be emotionally affected by it in a good way, hopefully.” I’m very grateful to have been a part of that show.
I feel like a lot of people always go like, “Oh, well, it’s his show.” And yes, I created it, and, yes, I ran it. But I really have to acknowledge the writers that I worked with on that show, because they were super smart, and I learned so much from them, and the show benefited so much from their stories and their instincts and their take on things. And the cast. I mean, the show couldn’t have been the show without that cast.
Image via HBO
Looking back on the series, if there was one thing you could redo — you have a magic wand and you can fix one thing — is there something that comes to mind?
BALL: During the fourth season, there was a character named Celeste who Keith was a bodyguard for, and she was supposed to be like a Britney Spears type. And we had a scene where she was rehearsing with some backup dancers, and it just wasn’t very good. I would probably… They didn’t look like professional dancers. I would probably go back and change that a little bit so that maybe instead of asking them to rehearse and perform and dance, I would have done something that didn’t immediately draw attention to itself for not being authentic. Really, you can fix anything in editing, but that was one where I was like, “Let’s just make it as short as it can possibly be and then move on.”
I love how specific an answer that is. Looking forward, last fall you told my colleague Christina Radish that you were working on a limited series about the Zankou Chicken family, and I wanted to check in and see where that stood.
BALL: We pitched that to all the major streamers, and they all passed. So that’s not going anywhere anytime soon. I was really bummed by that because I thought it was a great story, but I was told by many people that nobody wants to do limited series now.
Is it just that there are too many limited series these days?
BALL: I think so, or the fact that they don’t make as much money on them because they’re limited, because the more hours of a story they have, the more money they make, the more views they get. I don’t know. I’m totally in the dark about why some things get green-lit and other things don’t. But I’m assuming there’s some sort of algorithm that’s telling people what they should be doing.
Do you have anything you can talk about that you’re working on right now?
BALL: I don’t. I’ve got stuff I’m working on, but I don’t like to talk about things until they’re somewhere close to happening. I’m working on a spec pilot that I’m writing. I’ve got another series that I’ll be pitching with a production company, but it’s too soon to talk about any of what those are going to be. Just suffice to say, they’re both shows I would watch.
That feels like a pretty good qualification for anything you work on.
BALL: It’s pretty much the only qualification I have.
One last question: If you had to pick a favorite episode of the show, which would it be?
BALL: Oh, that’s difficult. Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, I would say the two that are the most meaningful to me, I wrote and directed both of them, so I don’t want to seem like it’s, oh, my stuff. But, the pilot and the finale. There was an episode called “Untitled” that Nancy Oliver wrote, that I thought was really, really good. I think the whole last three or four episodes of dealing with Nate’s death, I was very proud of those. But it’s hard for me to pick one and say, “That’s my favorite episode,” because I’m like a parent. I love them all. I love all my children.
Six Feet Under is streaming now on HBO Max.
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About The Author
Liz Shannon Miller
(316 Articles Published)
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by Vulture, Variety, The AV Club, The Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.
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