As I have mentioned, the first original drama series on HBO was Oz – a transgressive and groundbreaking type of prison drama, but unfortunately a show that has been overlooked and forgotten by many viewers and scholars. Nevertheless, Tom Fontana’s show managed to establish the type of framework which would later come to define HBO and cable TV drama in general: The HBO Playbook.[1] A diegetic narrator, bound to a wheelchair and looking directly into the camera, different filters and lenses, subjective sound and colors were some of the overt stylistic choices that came to characterize the show.





At the same time, the series introduced a symbolic and cinematic title sequence – a montage of close-ups hinting at the theme and gritty tonality of the show – and this type of title sequence would become something of a trademark for cable television. The standard for an HBO title sequence soon became a short symbolic montage (often 90 seconds), which in metaphorical and often poetic ways would introduce the theme, tonality and signature style of the given show.[2]





Like most other title sequences on HBO, the title sequence to Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-2005) was created by an external company called Digital Kitchen (other central companies include A52, Elastic and Imaginary Forces), and when the creator Alan Ball saw the finished piece, he was astonished, saying that it was “so elegant, so cinematic, so unlike TV.”[3] This reaction to Danny Yount’s work is telling of HBO as a channel and of cable television in general: There is a general willingness – or even eagerness – to transgress the boundaries of conventional television, whatever that may be. Ironically, that might even be defined as a new convention or a new formula: Going against or subverting the conventions of traditional television, including the three-camera set-up, the studio lighting and the harmless depiction of wholesome, nuclear families.                                           I

In this context it is interesting to note that many critics and scholars have compared the modern drama series with novels, seeing shows like The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008), Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015) and Six Feet Under as modernized versions of Balzac and Dickens (whose stories were often published as newspaper serials).[4] When David Chase praised Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991), for example, he pointed to its “poetic” qualities and its similarities with “painting” and “foreign films”, as if to emphasize the artistic quality of Twin Peaks by pointing to other and more legitimate art forms. And he specifically noted that Twin Peaks was different from the “yak-yak-yak-yak” that we so naturally associate with television.[5] Interestingly, some of the most heavily stylized work on Twin Peaks, apart from the episodes that David Lynch, himself, directed, were, in fact, directed by female directors like Lesli Linka Glatter and Diane Keaton. Glatter directed four episodes and used deep focus and quirky compositions to staggering effects (often having different visual obstructions in the foreground of the shot or interesting side-actions in the background), and Keaton directed one of the most artsy and heavily debated episodes (using stagy compositions, noir-like motifs, low-key lighting and slow-motion).[6]

Also, when it comes to the title sequence of Six Feet Under, people have pointed to its cinematic or unconventional qualities. Thomas Newman’s music in the title sequence to Six Feet Under subtly recalled the music from American Beauty (1999), and the use of a blue optical filter metaphorically hinted at the darkness and sadness of the show, while introducing two of the most predominant stylistic choices of the entire series. Like Oz and The Sopranos, Six Feet Under used a modern and symbolic title sequence, introducing its prevalent stylistic choices, and like its predecessors Six Feet Under flaunted a style which was noticeably different from conventional television.

Six Feet Under was created by an openly gay writer, Alan Ball, and Michele Aaron might be right in assuming that Ball hired Mary Harron to give it a certain “pedigree”, inasmuch as she was associated with New Queer Cinema. The themes and stylistic choices in Harron’s episode of Six Feet Under, however, seem to reflect some of the thematic and formal preferences that she had already established in Oz and Homicide. In that sense, Harron might have been asked to work on HBO and Showtime to give the shows (Six Feet Under, Big Love and The L Word) a cinematic touch and to accentuate the themes concerning gender and sexuality.

Harron’s episode, “The Rainbow of Her Reasons” (2005), which is written by Jill Soloway (Transparent, Amazon, 2014-), consists of more than 30 scenes, and nearly all of those (with the only real exception of the hiking scene in the beginning) are dialogue scenes, mostly concerning the potential disintegration of family or love relations. In that sense, Harron’s episode of Six Feet Under, in fact, looks like the embodiment of the melodramatic “yak-yak-yak-yak” which David Chase criticized when hailing Twin Peaks as a cinematic masterpiece. But the different dialogue scenes in Harron’s episode where the characters constantly debate and negotiate what it means ‘to be home’ and ‘to be a family’ are composed in a rather cinematic way. Often the framing and the compositional lines, however subtle, function in a symbolic way to mirror the themes of integration and disintegration, togetherness and solitude. The first scene with David (Michael C. Hall) and Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) mirrors the opening sequence of the entire series – where Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) tragically dies while driving home to his wife, who is preparing a Christmas dinner in the kitchen – and the conflict between David and Keith is illustrated in the use of framing and composition. In the foreground we see David, who is preparing lunch, not unlike his mother in the opening sequence of the pilot episode, and in the background Keith is arguing with their foster children. Thus, the conflict between the two characters is illustrated in Harron’s use of deep focus where the foster children literally come between the two potential parents in the foreground and background of the shot. This stylistic choice might have been used in other episodes from the series, but it also seems to resonate naturally with Harron’s focus on contrasts and blurred boundaries in her other (TV) work.

Later in the episode, David and Keith are discussing their predicament, and as Keith suggests that they should give up trying to be a nuclear family, David replies:

“t’s not like they’re slippers you can return to Neiman Marcus just because they don’t fit.” How can you just abandon them when their little lives have always been filled with so much trauma?

In another scene, Harron uses a similar compositional technique with a similar thematic and symbolic function. Rico (Feddy Rodríguez) and David are talking in the morgue, while Rico is working on the body of Fiona (who once, much to the dismay of his mother, had a fling with the much younger Nate). Rico has been separated from his children and misses them, yearning for his disintegrated family to be reassembled. David is listening to Rico, while pondering his own predicament: Will he and Keith ever be parents of a modern nuclear family? This scene, however, can hardly be reduced to a melodramatic dialogue scene akin to tradition soap operas. And the most interesting element is, in fact, the dead woman (Fiona) who literally takes up the central part of the frame – as if the corpse were a visual reminder of the woman who threatens to tear apart the Fisher family.

Fig. 1: A symbolic composition from Mary Harron’s episode of Six Feet Under (2005, 5:6).

Fig. 1: A symbolic composition from Mary Harron’s episode of Six Feet Under (2005, 5:6).

At the end of the episode, then, we witness the (partial) disintegration of the relationship between Ruth (Frances Conroy) and her second husband George (James Cromwell). In the opening of the episode, Ruth and George had a conversation – a conversation that was visually represented as a fight – and by the end of the episode George has given up. In the first scene, Ruth and George debated his life situation, Ruth coming across as strong and slightly domineering, and George looking more and more as the weaker party. During their conversation, they were symbolically separated by the kitchen counter in the middle of the shot, and when Ruth finally chose to transcend the barrier, going over to George’s side of the counter while asking him about going back to work, George was literally backed into a corner while bending downwards.

The physical barrier between Ruth and George in the kitchen scene symbolically illustrates the growing emotional barrier between them, precipitating George’s decision to end the relationship.

According to filmmaker Mike Nichols, there are basically three types of dialogue scenes – seductions, negotiations and fights – and the conversation between Ruth and her second husband has turned into a symbolic fight of sorts (as seen in the beginning) that ends in the inevitable defeat of both parties (as seen in the final shot).[7] “Let’s not waste anymore of each other’s time,” as George says.

I get it. You want to leave me, but first you want to make sure that I have everything I need, which is very kind, thoughtful as you always are… Thanks to you, I have my apartment, my pots, and my pans. So, thank you… Consider yourself free.

Fig. 2-3: The conversation is depicted as a fight in Six Feet Under (2005, 5:6).

Those themes are also central in Big Love, yet Mary Harron seems to be even more interested in the redefinition of concepts like family, home and love than in the specific concerns of gender and sexuality. Harron’s episode of Big Love is called “Roberta’s Funeral” (2006), and it seems significant in itself that Harron, who often deals with family crises and trauma, was asked to direct an episode about the loss of a central character and the different conflicts connected to her death. As seen in the title sequence where the ice underneath the ice-skating characters is beginning to crack, symbolically threatening to tear them apart, Harron’s episode is about people coming together and helping each other, but in a way that constantly threatens to shatter or disintegrate the collective. The women help each other, folding laundry, in the opening of the episode, but the scene also – simultaneously – looks like a battle, and when they all meet at Roberta’s funeral, there is an undercurrent of jealousy, internal strife and potential fragmentation.





Big Love is about a fictional Mormon family in Utah, who seem to have redefined our traditional understanding of the concepts of family and home, yet it might all be nothing more than a utopian fantasy. “God only knows / what I’d be without you”, as The Beach Boys sing in the title sequence. Harron’s episode ponders that question, and in the scenes with our central characters – the main family within the larger family – Harron often uses mirror motifs to illustrate the tension between the different sides of the characters. In those mirrors, we see the shadow selves of the characters and the world they inhabit: The individual wishes as opposed to the collective demands and the sinful lust as opposed to the righteous path. Vice and virtue.

Harron’s work on Big Love and Six Feet Under is clearly connected, yet it is difficult to say unequivocally whether those connections are related to HBO’s house style and brand or to Harron as a director.

Fig. 4-5: Symbolism and mirror motifs in Big Love (2006, 1:6).

 

 


Andreas Halskov (b. 1981) holds an MA in Film Studies from Copenhagen University. Halskov is a lecturer in Media Studies at Aarhus University, and he works as a film/TV expert in different media and as a curator of film historical screenings at Cinemateket in Copenhagen and Øst for Paradis in Aarhus, besides being an editor of the scholarly film journal 16:9. Halskov has published numerous articles in journals like Kosmorama, Series, Short Film Studies, International Journal of Digital Television and Blue Rose Magazine, and he has co-written and edited four Danish anthologies on American television (Fjernsyn for viderekomne, Turbine, 2011), the Oscars (Guldfeber, Turbine, 2013), audiovisual comedy (Helt til grin, VIA Film & Transmedia, 2016) and tendencies in the modern streaming landscape (Streaming for viderekomne, VIA Film & Transmedia, 2019) Finally, he has written a monograph on David Lynch, co-written a book about vampire films and series and written two peer-reviewed books about modern TV drama (TV Peaks: Twin Peaks and Modern Television Drama, University  Press of Southern Denmark, 2015) and serialization (Remakes, sequels og serialisering, Samfundslitteratur, 2019). An English book about David Lynch will be published in 2018/2019, as will an interview-based book about sound design in film and television, and he has contributed to a British anthology on Global TV Horror (eds. Lorna Jowett & Stacey Abbott, University of Wales Pres). Finally, he has co-created a five-part documentary series about the American TV landscape (Serierejser/TV Travels, VES/HBO Nordic, 2019).

 

Footnotes:

[1] Cf. Halskov, Andreas (2015b), TV Peaks, pp. 41-43.

[2] Cf. Halskov, Andreas (2011), “Indledningens kunst – Den moderne titelsekvens,” in Nielsen, Jakob Isak et al. (eds.), Fjernsyn for viderekomne, pp. 36-54. A revised version of the article has later been presented as an audiovisual essay in April, 2014 (cf. http://www.16-9.dk/2014/04/indledningens-kunst-den-moderne-titelsekvens/).

[3] Halskov, Andreas (2011), “Indledningens kunst,” p. 106. See also the commentary track on the Season 1 DVD of Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001).

[4] Cf. Nielsen, Jakob Isak (2012), “TV-serien som vor tids roman?”, in Passage #68, pp. 83-100.

[5] Quoted in Biskind, Peter (2007), “An American Family,” Vanity Fair, April.

[6] For more on this, see Halsov, Andreas (2015), TV Peaks: Twin Peaks and Modern Television Drama. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark.

[7] Quoted in McGrath, Douglas (2016), Becoming Mike Nichols. HBO Documentary.