Six Feet Under: The Complete First Season
Setting his family drama in a family-owned funeral home was the first smart move Alan Ball (American Beauty) made with Six Feet Under. The second smart thing was insisting on opening every episode with a death, and making the recently deceased part of the cast for that hour, a nice way of leavening the series' essentially morbid nature.
The third was casting Michael C. Hall and Rachel Griffiths as part of the series’ exceedingly strong ensemble. As David, the religious, closeted, “good son” of the Fisher family, Hall plays a dozen different shades of uptight without getting tiresome. As Brenda, David’s brother’s sexy, unstable girlfriend, Griffiths portrays the wild card with customary style, at least until the series heads into overdrive.
Six Feet Under, like The Sopranos, is basically a soap opera; better written and acted than its daytime counterparts, perhaps, but as committed to torturing its characters and - thanks to its setting - threatening death at every hairpin turn of the plot. This isn’t a criticism; in movies, melodrama often suffers by being pinched into time restrictions, but in a TV series - especially one unencumbered by network censorship - it’s a lush, overgrown garden, messy and abundant.
Igby Goes Down
Kieran Culkin does Holden Caulfield in Burr Steers’ beautifully-cast Igby Goes Down, the little lost rich boy who throws himself against the bars of his gilded cage. The popularity of this story is easy to understand, especially when someone like Steers is so careful to depict Igby’s world - private schools, Hamptons summer homes, bad behaviour and despair in SoHo and the Upper East Side - as so worthy of rebellion.
It would have been a lot less enjoyable without such a stellar cast - Susan Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum and Jared Harris are particular stand-outs - or the stern editor’s hand that paced the film so beautifully, as the obligatory set of outtakes demonstrates. Twenty years ago, Igby’s lunge for an escape might have been played like an indictment of his operatically awful family; today, after too many obligatory indictments, Steers allows Igby a hint of dreaded “closure” that only feels false after the credits roll.
Pennies From Heaven
Bing sings, and if he didn’t there’d be no reason to watch Pennies From Heaven, a 1936 hard times comedy that gives you some idea how desperate folks were for a bit of cheer during the Depression. Bing is a wandering troubadour who ends up saddled with an eccentric old man and his annoyingly precocious granddaughter. There’s a pretty social worker and an orphanage and a truly winceworthy bit of “spook” humour that’s only redeemed by Louis Armstrong’s brief musical turn.