Maurice Smith is a business journalist with 20 years' experience in newspapers and broadcasting. He is the author of Great Scots Families in Business.
Six Feet Under, television series, HBO
What are we to make of a drama whose backdrop is a funeral parlour and whose characters turn out to be among the wackiest families in the wackiest of states, California?
Six Feet Under is the latest smash to emerge from the American TV hit factory HBO, fresh on the heels of that other "family" business show, The Sopranos. Where the "mafia soap" was a genuinely unexpected success, Six Feet Under's conception was a little more contrived. Its producer, Alan Ball, had enjoyed movie success with American Beauty, whose themes and characterisations are more than a little similar.
Nevertheless, Six Feet Under proves that there is plenty of life in the family business formula. When it comes to examining eccentric behaviour, interpersonal relationships, tensions and rows, there seems to be no better medium for the story than a family company.
Six Feet Under just takes the formula to extreme. In the first few minutes of the first episode, we are just getting used to the new character – wise-cracking patriarch and world-weary undertaker of Fisher & Sons, Nathaniel Fisher – when his hearse is mown down by a bus.
No more Nathaniel. Instead, the character re-appears fleetingly for the rest of the series as a ghost. But Nathaniel leaves behind more than just his spirit. As the family soon finds out during the reading of his will, Nathaniel leaves the business to his two sons. This might seem fair and even expected, except that one son, Nate, has never worked in the business nor shown any interest in it. The other son, David, has worked in the funeral home for many years and immediately feels betrayed by his father and resents having to share the business with a brother he hardly knows. And sister Claire, who receives no part of the business (probably because she's only 18), feels left out and angry that her father left her money that she is to use for university – something she's not sure she wants to pursue at this point in her life (and definitely not while it's being dictated to her from beyond the grave). In just the first episode, the show has hit on many common problems for family businesses.
The series is macabre, and deliberately so. Each episode begins with a death, usually violent, and switches to the morgue where the corpse of the week undergoes treatment. But the focus also involves the family.
Within the first few episodes, the apparently conventional matriarch Ruth confesses to having had a passionate, long-running affair while her husband was alive. Son Nate – very much the prodigal – has embarked on a bizarre affair with a crazed woman called Brenda, whose behaviour seems designed to shock at every turn.
Son David, the rock of the family and heir apparent to the business, is grappling over whether or not to "come out" about his homosexuality.
And the only "normal" character, teenage tearaway Claire, is hanging around with dangerous young men and flirting with drugs.
Throughout Six Feet Under, there are also familiar themes for those in family business. The funeral business can be cut-throat. Large chains are buying out the little guys, commoditising death, their conversations peppered with talk of returns on investment rather than the quality of oak for a coffin.
The easy decision for the Fishers would be to sell out. But the decision to keep the business, to fight off the big boys, serves to unite the family. The two brothers bond closely for the first time in their lives when they join to fight off the unwanted attentions of the evil conglomorate, Kroehner Services International.
Amidst all the angst and drama, the series manages to allude to many of the routine, everyday issues of business: investment, staff issues, expansion and customers, most of them grieving as they negotiate the best for their late loved ones.
There are some recurring themes that will be familiar to any owner-manager. The Fishers employ one of the best "face men" in the business, Federico. When corpses arrive, their faces smashed in car pile-ups or burned in electrocutions, Federico applies his magic to reconstruct those battered bodies, restoring them to look better than they did when they were alive.
So, when Kroehner is foiled in its attempts to buy out the Fisher business, it tries instead to headhunt Federico. Without him, the Fishers could go under. David and Nate, still trying to work out their future, are presented with their first dilemma: staff retention.
There are moments where Six Feet Under does not appear to know where it wants to go. Early on, Ruth has an opportunity to influence the fate of the business after her husband's death. But the moment is fumbled, and she leaves it up to her two sons, even though they would have likely been influenced by her views.
Perhaps that is how it is meant to be. In real life, decisions are not reached easily, and implemented in fits and starts rather than in some seamless executive action. People make mistakes, they avoid issues, they leave things unsaid. Even in the closest of families, the best-managed family businesses, nothing is perfect.