Television To Die For… Literally

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.

Voyeurism

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.

Works Cited

“Amour Fou.” The Sopranos. HBO. 13 May 2001.

“An Open Book.” Six Feet Under. HBO. 1 July 2001.

“Bitches.” Pushing Daisies. ABC. 14 Nov. 2007.

Bun, Lisa C. Personal interview. 31 Mar. 2008.

Chambers, Samuel A. Reading Six Feet Under. New York: St. Martin’s P, 2005. 175.

“I’ll Take You.” Six Feet Under. HBO. 19 May 2002.

“In Camelot.” The Sopranos. HBO. 18 Apr. 2004.

“Isabella.” The Sopranos. HBO. 28 Mar. 1999.

Keller, James R., and Leslie Stratyner. Almost Shakespeare: Reinventing His Works for Cinema and Television. Jefferson: McFarland, 2004. 31 Mar. 2008.

Livingstone, S., & Liebes, T. (1995). “Where Have all the Mothers Gone?” Soap Opera’s Replaying of the Oedipal Story. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 12, 155-175.

Margolis, Gerald J. “Secrecy and Identity.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1966).

Metzl, Jonathan. “From Scopophilia to Survivor: a Brief History of Voyeurism.” Textual Practice 18 (2004): 415-434. 31 Mar. 2008.

Mitchell, Stephen A., and Margaret J. Black. Freud and Beyond: a History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1995. 5.

Neimeyer, Robert A. Death Anxiety Handbook: Research, Instrumentation, and Application. Washington: Taylor & Francis, 1994. 104-105.

“Pie-Lette.” Pushing Daisies. ABC. 03 Oct. 2007.

Sandler, Ph.d., Joseph. “On the Concept of Superego.” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (1960). 31 Mar. 2008.

Vande Berg, Leah R., Lawrence A. Wenner, and Bruce E. Gronbeck. Critical Approaches to Television. 2nd ed. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 454-455. 31 Mar. 2008.

Wood, Peter. “Television as Dream.” The Critical View (1976). 31 Mar. 2008.

10 thoughts on “Television To Die For… Literally

  1. I found your paper very interesting. I always enjoy thinking about the psychological and underlying motives for characters, but have not thought about this framework much for genre analysis. I wonder if the themes that you have found, copying the parent, voyeurism, and secrets specifically reflected late 90’s, early 20th century culture. Now, we seem to be watching shows about characters that are alive after death, such as True Blood, The Vampire Chronicles, and The Waking Dead It would be interesting to find out if these shows also use these themes or if they have developed other generic patterns among them.

  2. I did not know a “death genre” existed. I would of categorized The Sopranos, as a drama. This death genre can only grow due to the lack of knowledge of the after life. Shows such as Pushing Daisies, could possibly give people hope to what happens in the after life. This death genre might even give people something to believe or alter their own beliefs about the after life.

    I agree that children model their parents’ behavior. This is true for me and my experience with death. I was eleven-years-old when my grandmother passed away. This was the first time a close family member to me had died. What helped me get through this experience, was the comforting reassurance from my aunts. On one occasion, my grandmother had visited the family but was only seen by my aunts. My aunt Sandi stopped talking, turned her head to the living room and turned back to us sitting at the table. She said, “Zaine is here and she looks happy.” Everyone at the table stopped what they were doing and turned their heads towards the living room. We all turned back to face each other and shared a smile. Stories about my grandmother quickly followed. I have been conditioned to embrace the spirits of those that have passed and not be afraid.

  3. I think this paper would be stronger without the brief mention of closeted gay characters. “The Sopranos had Vito as its closeted gay character. Perhaps Pushing Daisies should have added a secretive, gay character to increase its ratings.” Without going into this more in depth, by just flippantly referring to these characters as a way to increase ratings and not going into the complexities of gay characters in general historically on tv or in regards to the particular time peroid these shows exist in culturally (early 2000s) may turn off some readers. This does very little to serve your overall argument (I found the secretive attic and doublelife more reasoned out for example). Turning your readers off may even cause them to question the validity of some of the other more reasoned points of discussion so be aware of this!

  4. I think it is really interesting to look at death as a genre. Personally, some of my favorite shows have centered around death. Six Feet Under, Pushing Daisies, and Dead Like Me included. It is something I’ve thought about but not in depth and your paper has left me wanting to explore it some more. There is something about having death be so integral to a show that makes for interesting characters and situations and I agree with Julieta, it is because death is universal and life after death is the ultimate unknown.
    The part about the children taking on some of their deceased parent’s traits really sparked my interest. Could it be that the children subconsciously pick up these traits as a way of immortalizing the deceased? In Pushing Daisies, Ned was very personally affected by his mother’s death and pie making was his way of remembering his mother and turning his strange ability and horrible situation into something positive as he was growing up. With the Fisher children in Six Feet Under, they each had very different relationships with their father when he was alive that made them question themselves when he died. Hence, all those inner monologues they were have with their dead father (their own subconscious). I think it is safe to say that everyone has a bit of their parents in their personalities whether they like it or not. In theses shows, this is further exemplified by the children as they try to cope with their parent’s death.

  5. Insightful analysis, Nathan! Death is the ultimate denouement, and catharsis. Individuals in conflict — be they dead, alive or in the “shadow world” between the two states — crave resolution. When we as viewers get invested in these characters and shows, the craving is mutual…

  6. I found this article to be extremely interesting. I respect the death genre that is explained above and now look at these shows differently. These saddened and sometimes tragedy based shows have an artistic approach to them. They mirror situations that people have taken on in their lives with a cause and effect perspective. I think people forget that death can happen to anyone at any given moment and the attention it draws is what keeps them watching. I can definitely agree with the sentence that states “unconscious beliefs motivate conscious adult behavior”.

  7. I found this article to be extremely interesting. I respect this idea of death genre that is explained above and now look at these shows differently. This would definitely fall under the genre theory in a historical constructed way. These saddened and sometimes tragedy based shows apply an artistic deathly approach to each episode. They mirror situations that people have taken on in their lives with a cause and effect perspective. Even though this style of writing may not be recognized by all audience members, it still represents symbolic inducements. I think people forget that death can happen to anyone at any given moment and the attention this topic draws is what keeps them watching. I can definitely agree with the sentence that states “unconscious beliefs motivate conscious adult behavior”. I also believe that children model their parents behavior, and this style of writing allows viewers to understand people better by knowing their back story (all three characters for example). People may come off “weird” or troubled as an adult in society, due to their experiences with death. These shows use a type of sapphire to expose viewers to the death genre and instead of tuning out, they tune in.

  8. Great article. I, for one, love the idea that television has expanded it’s genres and created a genre for emotion and fear. Death is such a strong fear for all sentient living beings, I imagine. The idea that everything will cease to exist one day scares us into living a life worthy of being appreciated by the ones we love after we pass on. It’s amazing we can be so aware of ourselves that we can create a show which emphasizes those emotions. The ability to show the motivation behind that fear and also how these characters in the shows you mentioned have a definite control over death really makes this genre one for the ages. In “Pushing Daisies”, Ned has the ability to essentially alter the plan that we all have to die someday. I love this show because opposed to The Soprano’s, and other gang/mafia related television where the characters often have chances to take life away, this show creates a new ability of giving life back.

  9. This article is really interesting, not only because it analyses an aspect of television that is so powerful nowadays, but also because it explains and refers to the influence and the psychological behavior of the audience. Until this point I did not consider death as a powerful theme for television. However, after reading this article I realized how often I observe it in television shows. On a daily basis we observe television series that mainly refer to death. Are we indeed influenced by what we observe? Certainly we do. But how much does the death concept affect us? Your point of view, really made me consider how powerful television might be to the audience, but also how dangerous it might get to younger audiences, not necessarily in an active way, but in an passive way as well.

  10. I find it interesting that death plays a major part in almost all dramatic television. The most shocking cliffhangers usually involve someone possibly being dead, and it seems like a lot of TV journalists always have the scoop on when a major character is going to be killed, perhaps as a way to boost ratings. For whatever reason, people love death on TV. I think it allows us to explore a fascination with death without seeming morbid, or making other people concerned for us. It also lets us think about death and experience the death of a character we love while also being able to walk away from the death and know that it isn’t real. We can still feel grief, but it’s a grief we can disconnect ourselves from in a way that we can’t when someone dies in real life. I think, in that sense, that seeing death on television is helpful to us. We can learn to deal with it and explore our natural curiosity about it without anyone actually dying.
    I like this article and I think this is a really fantastic topic.

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