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  • From Relationship Autopsy to Romantic Utopia:The Missing Discourse of Egalitarian Marriage on HBO's Six Feet Under
  • Merri Lisa Johnson (bio)

Filmic depictions of married life necessarily tend toward formal incoherence and abrupt genre shifts: when unable to contain their contradictions within the plot, the problem often erupts hysterically on the level of form.

—Laura Kipnis, Against Love: A Polemic

With the popular HBO original series, Six Feet Under, Alan Ball elaborates on the dark vision of family and desire initiated in his award-winning film, American Beauty, further reconfiguring traditional family drama in a post-network disavowal of televisual preciousness.1 When Claire Fisher, the tempestuous redheaded adolescent on Six Feet Under, screams at her mother Ruth that they will never have the kind of "touchy-feely mother-daughter relationships like you see on TV" because those kinds of relationships "don't exist" (episode 5: "An Open Book"), the writers decisively depart from idealistic representations of the nuclear family as full of comfort and moral support. In these metatelevisual moments, Six Feet Under [End Page 18] comments on its own medium, distancing itself from the conservative historical duties of "cramming every 'citizen' with daily doses of nationalism, chauvinism, liberalism, [and] moralism" (102), to borrow Louis Althusser's description of the media as Ideological State Apparatus. This renunciation of television's conservative use positions Six Feet Under as a potentially radical text in contemporary debates over gender roles, sexuality, and the "true" meaning of "family." Indeed, the Fisher family models a more genuine intimacy because of their honesty about what family can do for you, and what it can't do—or what it does to you, as well as for you.

While the show is structured around this less touchy-feely look at relationships within the nuclear family, the plot is largely driven by relationships between members of the Fisher family and their romantic interests. The embattled relationship between Nate and Brenda dominates seasons one and two, followed by the deeply troubled marriage between Nate and Lisa in season three; season four reintroduced the possibility of a relationship between Nate and Brenda and culminated with a proposal. The promotion for the fourth season hyped the romance angle: "One marriage has come to a tragic end, another is beginning, and a third is on the rocks" (HBO website).2 Thus, the part of the dysfunctional family plot that seems to be of most importance is the formation and maintenance of new pair-bonds. It is through this focal point that I wish to consider the strides made by this show towards updating existing relationship genres. As the "it's not TV" of family drama, Six Feet Under provides a televisual space in which to propose new near-feminist visions of romance and marriage.3

Yet when the narrative of Six Feet Under draws closest to the possibility of primetime feminism, something in the writing snaps. In episode 13 ("Knock, Knock"), Nate and Brenda argue in the car over whether to get engaged, and as their argument heats up, Brenda crosses the center line of the highway and nearly runs head-on into a truck before veering off the road and hitting a utility pole; both of them end up in the hospital: the revision of marriage discourse as car wreck? Nate and Lisa nearly separate, and when they finally decide to forge new roles for themselves within the marriage instead of abandoning it (episode 35: "The Opening"), Lisa goes missing (episode 36: "Everyone Leaves"), and for the rest of the season we are led to believe she has been abducted on her way to visit her sister in Santa Cruz. In the season finale her body is found and her death confirmed: the revision of marriage discourse as random violence? as risk to life and limb? To echo Slavoj Žižek's analysis of Peter Lynch's film Lost Highway, the writers of Six Feet Under seem to "take refuge in catastrophic scenarios in order to avoid [End Page 19] the actual deadlock (of the impossibility of sexual relationship, of social antagonism)" (34). Or in Peter Krause's perceptive reflections (Nate), these catastrophes cover up "things that either the...


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