Cold flesh is hot topic on 3 popular TV shows
Death becomes a ratings winner
By Matthew Gilbert, Globe Staff, 3/1/2002
Television is famous for exploiting the body. Along with commercials, series from ''General Hospital'' and ''Temptation Island'' to ''NYPD Blue'' are forever finding excuses to bare belly buttons, biceps, and maybe even a pair of buttocks. Any producer worth his salt seriously considers setting his sitcom in a tropical climate - before reason sets in, of course.
And, as the poets like to remind us, sex has a best friend, and its name is death. In the past two years, TV has begun to exploit another kind of body - the kind that isn't exactly warm or supple. Cadavers may be ice cold in the morgue, but they've become rather cool on TV, as three popular shows display them with an almost fetishistic glee. On ''CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,'' ''Crossing Jordan,'' and HBO's extraordinary ''Six Feet Under,'' which returns Sunday at 9, dead bodies have taken center stage, board-stiff but filled with gruesome plot clues and spiritual inspiration, not to mention embalming fluid.
Organizing a series around dead weight and blue skin is a bold proposition, but it has paid off for TV outlets - both creatively and financially. ''CSI'' is an inventive crime drama that has become a ratings monster for CBS - one with more staying power than ''Survivor.'' It's the perfect vehicle for our age of scientific investigation driven by DNA. ''Six Feet Under,'' a character-driven family drama set in a funeral home, won more viewers for HBO last year than ''The Sopranos'' did in its first season. It brilliantly transforms death into a thematic device against which its characters are trying to live their lives to the fullest. And ''Crossing Jordan,'' the weakest of the three, is nonetheless a modest hit for NBC, as Jill Hennessy sweetens up the ''Quincy'' medical-examiner formula with a bit of eye candy.
Not that death is a new subject for television. Indeed, TV has long been obsessed with fatality, as shows such as ''ER,'' the ''Law & Order'' franchise, and ''Providence'' revolve around illness, murder, and grief. But in American pop culture, death is generally presented with a soupcon of denial, as if it isn't part of ordinary life. While the genre shows do take a gritty approach to homicide, they are whodunits, first and foremost, and as such they focus on finding the reason behind the death, and not the cold, hard fact of it. They imply that the death shouldn't have happened in the first place.
The characters in ''CSI'' and ''Crossing Jordan'' are looking for reasons, too, but they're also looking directly at corpses. The emphasis on lifeless bodies in these shows takes the viewer closer to the simple reality of mortality, and into the realm of the undeniable. It's one thing for the righteous Detective Sipowicz to search the city for the scum who threw the baby out the window on ''NYPD Blue''; it's quite another to travel with the camera into the entrails of a bullet-ridden corpse, as we do on ''CSI.''
And it's yet another thing to watch the vivid ''Six Feet Under,'' which presents an unpredictable death at the start of every episode, then casually gazes at the corpse as if it were a sculpture. The bodies on ''Six Feet Under'' are objects of gross fascination as David Fisher and young mortician Federico work their cosmetic magic on them, mending a woman whose head was smashed, or restoring a man mauled by a cookie-dough machine. And the bodies stick around for the hour, sometimes rising into ghostly form, but always ending up back on their backs on the slab. They remind us that death is unchangeable and mundane.
Setting a family drama in a funeral home was an obvious symbolic stroke on the part of the show's creator, Alan Ball, and yet it works in subtle ways. The stiffs have come to represent the sense of death that each character is struggling against: Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) is a cerebral woman afraid to feel; she is prone to emotional death. David (Michael C. Hall), a gay man who no longer wants to suppress his feelings, is trying to emerge from his coffin of self-loathing. Meanwhile, Nate (Peter Krause) is trying to dodge physical death, as the season continues to explore his hidden illness.
And yet, ''Six Feet Under'' is one of TV's most creatively alive series. The first four hours of the new season show the writers and actors in top-notch form. The characters are written to be highly self-aware, and yet the actors pull off the cleverness without seeming precious. Griffiths's Brenda may be the most intriguing person on the show, as she effortlessly tosses off lines such as: ''The thing about depression is that if you allow yourself to feel it, it gets very boring very fast.''
You don't often come across TV that is so blackly comic, dramatically sound, and artfully filmed as ''Six Feet Under.'' Even the color scheme functions beautifully on this series, as the sequences fade to a searing white that can only be called Go Into the Light White. Notice the burnished sunset at
the end of Sunday's episode, and the way it informs the dialogue
between Brenda and Nate. It's the dying of the light, and the beginning of a very promising season.