In the final episode of HBO's Six Feet Under, Claire (Lauren Ambrose) opens a present. It's a mix CD made by her square boyfriend Ted (Chris Messina), who is about to be her not-boyfriend once she leaves for a job on the other side of the country.
"You have to promise me you won't listen to this until you start to drive away tomorrow morning," he says as she looks over the disc he's titled "Ted's Deeply Unhip Mix".
Anyone familiar with TV tropes knew exactly what this was signalling: a big road trip montage, set to an evocative piece of music that the writers clearly seemed just a little embarrassed about. Conferring the blame upon Ted and his chronic unhipness was the perfect way to deploy a stirring and possibly sappy piece of music whilst deflecting any potential criticism for a show that had, for five year, steadfastly avoided sappiness.
The next morning, Claire bids her family farewell and climbs into the car. As she pulls away, Ted's mix kicks off with Sia's "Breathe Me". It's unlikely that, back in 2005, many of us would have recognised the song or artist, but as the moody piano begins and Sia breathily intones "Help, I have done it again", it immediately became clear that this was the perfect track for this moment.
Six Feet Under was a seminal piece of television drama. Premiering in mid-2001, it came along just as the concept of "prestige television" was gaining momentum. These were shows that benefitted from the ease of catchup viewings afforded by new technologies like DVRs and DVDs.
The show centered on the lives of a dysfunctional family that ran a funeral home, and was notable for being far less sentimental than the typical network dramas of the time, the soaps that often concluded with a hug or an all-too satisfactory resolution. In the world of Six Feet Under, the drama was as complicated as that of real life. It was an approach counterpointed by the platitudes of funerals featured in the show, ceremonies in which everyone is expected to pay respectful tribute and wrap a difficult life in a neat bow. It was a fascinating contrast, skewering the human desire to simplify the complex, but refusing to damn our innate need for resolution.
The show led a quiet revolution in terms of how music was used in television. At the turn of the century, the opening sequence was just beginning to find its way as a distinct artform. Most opening sequences were simply montages of faces, promoting the characters and actors who played them. More "serious" shows like Homicide and The Sopranos avoided this cliché, but their sequences were handheld affairs, a vérité of shakiness that set a distinct tone.
Six Feet Under gave us something different. Its curated opening was polished and deliberate, artistic and earnest. No fast cuts of life on the streets here: in studio conditions, hands pull symbolically apart, flowers wither and die in fast motion. All these images set to a theme dripping in prestige, and it's that music that immediately set this show apart from the rest.
The theme was composed by the Oscar-nominated Thomas Newman, who was coming off the success of American Beauty, a feature film written by Six Feet Under's creator Alan Ball. The music was bold and Brechtian, a melody that led the images. The orchestral strains, shifting and modulating, were addictive and joyous, and doubtless contributed significantly to the success of the show. Before YouTube allowed for the instantaneous delivery of your favourite opening sequences, you had to wait a week to see Six Feet Under's phenomenal intro. And nobody who loved the show would dare come in late and miss that opening.
The influence of Six Feet Under's opening was undeniable and immediately apparent. There was Showtime's Huff, essentially a Six Feet Under tribute act, but also many successfully-rendered sequences that were less overt about their inspiration: Carnivale, True Detective, The Crown, Daredevil and Westworld. Abstract symbolism has become the norm for opening sequences, now works of art unto themselves, created by a burgeoning generation of Saul Basses.
Five years later, the show that had opened with one of the most striking pieces of theme music ever, concluded with one of the great closing sequences of all time. As Sia begins to sing, Claire begins to sob, and—knowing what's to come—so do we.
Her road trip is intercut with glimpses of the future. Birthdays and weddings and days of no particular note. Everyone greys. Lovers reunite. There's a dreamlike quality to the cinematography, and it's unclear if we're witnessing the actual future or Claire's dream of it.
Each episode of Six Feet Under began with a death, most often that of someone the family was to perform a funeral service for. Each death accompanied by a card that indicated the closure of a life: 1957-2004. The final sequence provided such cards for each of the main characters as they pass away either peacefully or violently, often at unexpected moments, the banal moments as common as the profound ones.
It's a finale that lands hard, not just because of the connection we feel to these characters, but due to the perfect choice of music. Maybe Ted felt his music was deeply unhip because it's not fashionable to embrace uninhibited emotions, but that was the strength of it.
At the time, Sia had been disappointed with the sales of Colour the Small One, the album on which "Breathe Me" first appeared. Its inclusion at such a critical and unforgettable moment of Six Feet Under meant she was indelibly linked to the biggest moment from one of television's most popular dramas, and the success she'd sought finally arrived.
Not all of Sia's success can be attributed to the show, but it served as a flashpoint that she capitalised on well. Even though Six Feet Under has slipped a little from public consciousness—possibly due to the fact that its episodes are not as "fun" to return to in isolation, and that bingeing this particular show takes something of an emotional toll—its legacy remains.
The tagline of Six Feet Under's final season was the existentially poignant "Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends." As Sia's "Breathe Me" ramps up over one of the best montages in television history, the show assures that it's okay to lean into those feelings.
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