Watch the Show That Was So Ahead of Its Time 20 Years Ago, We’re Finally Catching Up

It’s rare to find a show that was made over 20 years ago and which still resonates with audiences today. It’s rarer still to find characters we fall in love with, and whose memory sticks with us through the years like an old friend. Six Feet Under is just such a show, with just such incredible characters. And now it’s even easier to catch up with all five seasons of the series, which are available on Netflix.

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Six Feet Under premiered on HBO in 2001, and it was an ambitious project even then. For starters, the show is about death—a big departure from any television show viewers had ever seen.

It’s about death, but really, it’s about life

The first few moments of every episode of Six Feet Under, even the pilot, begin with someone’s death. In episode 1, it’s the Fisher family patriarch, Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins), who meets his sudden end while driving the business’s new hearse home from the car lot. We barely get to know the elder Fisher, but don’t worry; his character returns in flashbacks and fantasies for the show’s entire five-season run.

Nathaniel’s sudden death sets the tone of the series, which centers around the Fishers, a southern California family who own and live in a funeral home called Fisher & Sons. Nathaniel left behind his neurotic widow, Ruth (Frances Conroy), oldest son Nate (Peter Krause), middle son David (Michael C. Hall), and youngest daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose). Workmate Rico (Freddy Rodriguez), Nate’s fling/girlfriend Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), and David’s boyfriend Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) round out the regular cast.

The first episode sets the stage for drama, but lest you think this show is all doom, gloom, and navel gazing, just know that there are also bursts of unexpected comedy throughout. The show’s creator, Alan Ball, used to write for sitcoms like Grace Under Fire and Cybill, but his career only took off after he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for American Beauty. His comedic roots are clearly visible in each brilliant episode of Six Feet Under, making the show a dark comedy in the truest sense.

Lauren Ambrose and Frances Conroy in 'Six Feet Under'

No topic was off-limits

Six Feet Under came on the entertainment scene at a time when audiences loved gritty, true-life shows like The Sopranos and The Wire. Ball’s show has the grit, but it also has so much heart that it sometimes hurts to watch. Nate’s apathy about the life, career, and family he feels roped into having appeals to a certain viewer, as does David’s late-in-life coming out story, Claire coming of age in the shadow of grief, and Ruth finding a way forward after losing her touchstone.

The show approaches even the most difficult topics—sex addiction, miscarriage, drugs, and dementia, to name a few—in a way that is as daring as it is tender. We feel sympathy for the characters, even when they break our hearts, which they do regularly.

“I remember early in the first season there was a crib death,” Ball recalled in an interview with The Independent. “And one of the writers was saying, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t go there. It’s too upsetting,’ and I’m like, well, we have to go there. We have to. Because these people who do this for a living, they have to go there. And we have to go there with them.”

Go there, we did

It wasn’t just just great writing, directing, and producing that captured lightning in a bottle like this show did. The actors have to take a huge bow here, and we can say without hyperbole that this show produced some of the most brilliant acting you’ll ever see. Over the course of its five season run, Six Feet Under racked up countless award nominations, winning a total of nine Emmys and three Golden Globes.

Six Feet Under was ahead of its time. It tackled LGBTQ topics, racism, sexism, toxic relationships, addiction, and every other “taboo” subject imaginable. We went through hell with these characters, and the weird thing is, we had fun doing it. In fact, viewers like yours truly watch the entire series every few years, just to remind ourselves how good television can be. Many of us believe the show is as close to perfection as a series can get.

Which brings us to …

The best finale of all time

Season 5, episode 12 is called “Everyone’s Waiting,” and I’m tearing up just thinking about it.

Ball wrote and directed the final episode, which aired on August 21, 2005. The pressure was on the showrunners to bring the Fishers’ story to a satisfying conclusion, and they delivered. The finale was an immediate hit with viewers and critics alike. Incidentally, it was also one of the first times we heard Sia, whose song “Breathe Me” played during the series’ incredible final moments.

We are not going to spoil the ending for you. In fact, I’m leaving most details out of this article specifically so that you can enjoy this incredible show from start to finish as if it just aired yesterday. The best thing about Six Feet Under is that it could have just aired yesterday. It’s as timely and punchy now as it was all those years ago, which is a true testament to this enduring rumination on life, death, and the American dream.

You can now stream all five seasons of Six Feet Under on Netflix. Life is short—don’t wait to watch it.

(featured image: HBO)

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Beverly Jenkins
Beverly Jenkins (she/her) is a contributing writer for The Mary Sue. She writes about pop culture, entertainment, and web memes, and has published a book or a funny day-to-day desk calendar about web humor every year for a decade. When not writing, she's listening to audiobooks or watching streaming movies under a pile of her very loved (spoiled) pets.