by Nathan Stevens
On an episode of Six Feet Under, a customer of the Fisher and Diaz funeral home asks Nate Fisher, “Why do people have to die?” In the most monotone inflection of voice, he responds with, “To make life important.” Death is an inevitability that we accept because, well, we have to. Most people, however, do not work through these feelings until well past childhood. The children who do confront death at an early age are often profoundly shaped by the experience. Using a psychoanalytic approach can help explain adult television protagonists who had death as a central theme in their character’s childhood. The adult characters across these shows exhibit three specific behaviors: the close emulation of a parent who is no longer alive, voyeurism, and repression or secrecy.
To demonstrate this claim, I have chosen to examine three shows. The first is Six Feet Under (2001-2005), a drama surrounding the Fischer family, who own and operate a funeral home. The main characters were raised in this home, so, seeing a dead body and constantly dealing with grief stricken families is a day to day occurrence for the Fisher children.
The second television show, a magical, whodunit, dramedy is Pushing Daisies (2007-2009). It follows the main character Ned, a man who at a prepubescent age found out he has a supernatural power. If Ned touches a corpse, the deceased comes back to life. If he touches the now, live body, it returns to death forever. If he keeps someone alive for longer than one minute, a being of the same essence in the close vicinity loses all signs of life. Ned learned about this power when, as a young child, he accidentally brought his mother back to life, which, after one minute, killed his childhood sweetheart’s father across the street. In the evening, when Ned’s Mom gives him a kiss goodnight, she then drops to the floor, and he finds he can no longer revive her.
The third show being analyzed is The Sopranos (1999-2007). This multi- award winning drama follows the everyday struggles of Tony Soprano, the boss of an organized crime unit in New Jersey, who attends therapy sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi. As a child of a mob boss, the young Tony, was also immersed in death. Studying these three shows together proves that there is a subcategory of television called the Death Genre.
Psychoanalytical Approach and Criticism
Psychoanalysis works very differently than most critical approaches, especially when it comes to dissecting a television show. Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalytic theory in the early 1900s to attempt to explain individual, psychological illness.Freud argued that the id represents our needs, the ego, gives use our reasoning, and our superego works as our subconscious from what we have taken from our past experiences and emotions (Margolis, 1966). However, it was not until 1976 that the psychoanalytic approach crossed over to television with the essay “Television as Dream,” which proposed that there are similarities between television shows and dreams themselves (Wood, 1976).
There are three very important assumptions that psychoanalytic critics use. “Human thought and behavior are derived from both the conscious and the unconscious of psychological worlds […], Both the individual and the shared or social aspects of psychological life are important to people […],and Dream work is central to human life (Vande Berg, 454-455). In this paper, I will examine how main characters who grew up around death have unconscious beliefs that motivate their conscious adult behavior.
The Childhood and The Superego
In the death genre, I am finding that the main characters follow closely in the footsteps of their deceased parents. When people (usually children) watch and observe certain things, whether they realize how much they are paying attention or not, it gets downloaded into their unconscious. Therefore it is always buried somewhere inside their mind, even though they may not be conscious of it. Consequently, children often model their behavior after their parents.
In Pushing Daisies, Ned’s father left him at an early age to be with another woman and then had two more sons. Ned’s father ignored him, which only drew him closer to his mother. She was a mom’s mom, always cooking and smiling. What Ned loved about her the most, and what we saw her mostly doing, was making pies. After Ned’s mother died, years later, we see him as Ned the pie maker. He works and owns a “feel good” restaurant called The Pie Hole.
In Six Feet Under, each child absorbed something different from the father, Nathaniel, who was killed in a tragic car accident. The eldest son, Nate, (who also bears his father’s name) took Nathaniel’s secretive ways of life. While Nathaniel was working as a funeral director, Nate discovered his father’s secret attic space in a property across town where he lived a double life. As an adult, Nate battles with himself to be with the woman he truly loves, Brenda, or with Lisa, the mother of his child. As a result, Nate has a double life where he hides his internal feelings from those closest to him. The second child, David, copies his father in a blatant way by becoming the funeral director of the family business. Claire, the youngest, drives a hearse just like her dad did everyday of his professional life (though hers is more hip and lime green).
In the case of Tony, from The Sopranos, this is a man who inherited just about everything his father was. Obviously, he took over the family business and became his father’s successor. Also, as much as Tony claims to love Carmella, he is constantly cheating on her with various women like strippers and other patients of Dr. Melfi. Tony’s father was also an unfaithful husband. This is a man who couldn’t take his wife to the hospital because he was in bed with some “broad”.
Digging even deeper, the similarity grows stronger between the two men because of their relationship to two different women. As unfaithful as this father/son pairing is, they both had one woman who was their favorite mistress. For Tony, it was his one legged Russian beauty, Svetlana. Tony was unaware that his father had his own dearest mistress, until the episode titled “In Camelot” (2004) revealed that his father had a decades long love affair with Fran Felstein. Tony knew that he could not blame his father for what he did because he is only feeling his own guilt and consequently decides to help Fran financially, the same way his father did.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV, fantasies of voyeurism are classified as a condition characterized by abnormal sexual desires, typically involving dangerous or extreme activities. It was Freudian theory that “helped shape definitions of voyeurism in American Psychiatry in the mid-twentieth century.” (Metzl, 2004) Voyeurism is “prying into the intimate lives of others or eavesdropping on social classes either above or below our own” (Keller & Stratyner 87). In a more simplistic description, being a voyeur means that the person likes to watch. Currently voyeurism does not directly have to be about sex. Voyeurism is another characteristic that unifies the death genre, as the characters are onlookers of dead people and each other.
In Pushing Daisies, Ned and his crime-fighting partner “touch” people, who have been murdered, to find out who killed them, then collect the reward money. Ned’s “brought back to life” girlfriend, Chuck, enjoys watching Ned bring these people back to life because she loves Ned and wants to be a part of what he does. Also she needs to watch these people come back to life, so she can understand her own experience. Additionally, because Ned cannot touch people once he has brought them back to life without killing them, he is relegated to just watching, instead of touching, Chuck, the woman he loves.
The main setting of Six Feet Under is inside of a funeral home, a place where loved ones go to mourn and watch their deceased family member. In The Sopranos, voyeurism is a defense mechanism in the show. These mobsters are in a world of their own where no one can understand them. They actually try to avoid being watched, or they watch each other, in order to stay alive.
Dino Zerilli: Since we’re kickin’ up, we were hopin’ you could, you know, watch our back?
Ralph Cifaretto: 350 buys you a hello. Watchin’ your back…that’s gonna require a little more initiative on your part.
Secrets in The Death Genre
Freud saw hysterics as people with conflicts and harboring secrets from themselves as well as from others” (Mitchell & Black, 1995). The main characters from the shows discussed in this essay all have secret lives. Main and supporting characters have something to hide in the death genre.
In The Sopranos, Tony’s entire life is centered on a secret. The police cannot know that Tony runs an organized crime unit. If they did we would not have this show, although they do create great conflict when Tony’s nephew’s fiancé, Adriana, is sought out by the police to turn in Tony and Christopher. Mid-way through the show’s run, Tony’s house is on the verge of being inspected by the authorities. Even his wife Carmella starts to hide everything stolen or not paid for, not only to avoid losing her husband, but also to protect her precious mansion.
The same idea is working in Pushing Daisies where we find Chuck hiding the fact that she is still alive to the world because then Ned would be blamed for the accidental deaths he has caused and possibly even be sent in for science experimentation. In turn, Ned hides Chuck’s secret from his crime-stopping partner, Emerson.
Emerson: Why is your eye twitching?
Ned: My eye isn’t twitching
Emerson: [firmly] You’re eye is twitching. When people aren’t being honest, their eye twitches. [Ned’s eye twitches] Right there. Like yours did just now.
Ned: It’s… nerves. It’s a stomach thing. Like acid reflux, but…in my eye.
In Six Feet Under, David is “a character who is outed to the viewers in the very first episode, but […] remains closeted to family, colleagues and friends for much of the first season ” (Chambers, 175). When David and his partner, Keith, prepare for a visit, the two talk about what needs to be done in preparation for the arrival of a social worker:
David: What are you looking for?
Keith: Anything that seems too uh…funny.
David: Funny ha-ha or funny gay?
Homosexuality is an integral part of our culture, and I am sure that adding a gay character into the death genre did bring in some viewers who related. The Sopranos had Vito as its closeted gay character. Perhaps Pushing Daisies should have added a secretive, gay character to increase its ratings.
The Dying Conclusion
I think that the television death genre is going to continuously grow. There are even more shows than just the three above that can be psychoanalyzed, such as Dead Like Me (2003), which centers on a college dropout who, after dying, is recruited into a grim reaper. There is also Reaper (2007), a show that follows a boy whose parents sold his soul before birth and must work as a bounty hunter for the devil, until his own death.
In this research, I found that concepts from Freud, such as parental influence, voyeurism, and repression (secrets) can be applied to the death genre. However, I doubt Freud would have ever imagined that his work could be translated into television that is, literally, to die for.
Nathan Alan graduated Class of 2009 from Columbia College Chicago with a Bachelor’s degree in Film & Video and a heavy emphasis on screenwriting. In 2009 he won 1st Place at the Written Image Awards for best Student Feature for a screenplay titled “The Lonely Parts”. Still writing strong and making trips out to L.A. to further a career, he’s also a student at Improv Olympic learning the art and craft of improvisation.
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