Who’s More Dysfunctional, ‘Transparent’s’ Pfeffermans or ‘Six Feet Under’s’ Fishers?


Before Transparent — whose gorgeous second season just began, ended, or middled, depending on what kind of binge streamer you are — Jill Soloway was known for having written for and co-execuitve produced Alan Ball’s hourlong HBO dramedy Six Feet Under. Like Transparent, Six Feet Under dove to the depths of the interior lives of a middle class Los Angeles family navigating the pulls of both contemporary life and tradition. Both series are far more concerned with characters and relationships than with plot, and their storytelling and aesthetics are full of similarities — to the point where one may happily recover from mourning the death of Six Feet Under with the somewhat reductive thought: “It’s like Six Feet Under was reincarnated as Jewish!”

Both shows follow members of their central families as they amble around the semi-arid L.A. terrain on existential/sexual/often-both-at-once quests for meaning. L.A. itself, meanwhile, is shown as an unsettlingly mystical place, suspended in time by its unchanging weather, while the characters contrastingly succumb to the fact that they’re not suspended in time. At all. The characters thus grapple with the cognitive dissonance between the comfortable, relaxed pace of the ideal L.A. lifestyle and the fact that despite the senses of weightlessness and timelessness the location can provoke, their decisions and bodies still bear weight, and neither are invulnerable to time.

On both shows, what this dissonance creates is — well, a whole lot of dysfunction. So, so much dysfunction. The Fishers of Six Feet Under lean towards repressing their issues, while Transparent‘s Pfeffermans are exceedingly open, but both families end up at odds with society and often with each other. They lash out at one another, they shun one another, and they throw some of the most unfortunate and awkward parties ever. (It doesn’t help that most of the Fishers’ parties are wakes.)

Both families are so complicated that it’s hard to say which is more dysfunctional — but Flavorwire is up for a challenge, and we’ve broken the decision down into a series of criteria. Click through to see which family takes the prize in each (just-fabricated) category of (the completely unquantifiable and subjective notion of) dysfunction.

[Some Transparent Season 2 spoilers ensue.]

Dysfunctional Relationship to Religion Winner: The Fishers

One of the loveliest parts of Transparent is the fact that the family’s relationship to tradition uplifts rather than oppresses them: their Judaism helps them ground their unpredictable lives spiritually while never getting in the way of how they exist romantically and sexually. (Except, of course, that Josh gets entangled with a Rabbi — but their particular dysfunction, it turns out, has very little to do with Judaism).

Conversely, Six Feet Under made it clear from the beginning that the characters’ spirituality would not bring them happiness (though in the end, many of them are able to reconcile belief and lifestyle in ways that aren’t repressive): the first episode features a virtuosic outburst from matriarch Ruth Fisher as, in the middle of her husband’s wake, she screams, “I’m a whore.” (She worries her dead husband has seen her affair from beyond.) Meanwhile, throughout the early seasons, her gay mortician son David envisions the embalmed dead shaming him as he deals with escalating pressure to come out. When the dead aren’t shaming him, he’s able to find shame in objects such as the imaginary blow job-exalting church window above.

Dysfunctional Relationship to Home Winner: The Fishers

Though the Pfeffermans have their fair share of arguments over who’ll inhabit the stunning midcentury house Maura left when she decided to take steps toward starting anew as a woman, these tensions cannot even remotely compare to the ways growing up in a funeral home has shaped the Fisher children. Recall when a plumbing issue leads to blood bubbling up from every drain in the household, a gruesome metaphor for the repressive nature of this domestic space. Or the flashback when David, as a young, impressionable child, aimlessly brings a doll down to the basement — where he sees his first dead body. The Fishers’ immersion in death has in some ways led them to be more evolved than most — and in other ways, it’s led them to be far more desperate.

Dysfunctional Relationship to Sex Winner: Tie

The Fishers are severely repressed, while the Pfeffermans tend to let it all hang out. Many of the Pfefferman children’s problems stem from the fact that they are entirely uncertain of what they want — and what they have the capacity for — romantically and sexually. In the second season, we see, almost systematically, how their current uncertainty is leading them to detach from their devoted partners (for Josh it’s Rabbi Raquel, for Ali it’s Syd, and for Sarah, Tammy). But this perhaps isn’t so much a problem (at least for them; the same absolutely cannot be said of their partners, who get consistently fucked over) as it is a matter of cocooning/isolating oneself before some form of metamorphosis — we’ll have to wait for Season 3 to know what that could entail.

The Fishers, on the other hand, begin as having secret sex lives due to stifling notions of shame and privacy in the family. But the series’ arc sees each of them slowly exiting their respective shells and beginning to understand each other. David is no longer the sad man who meticulously lays out a towel and lube as he masturbates to porn, and Ruth no longer hides her interest in sex from her children, eventually finding the self-worth to not need to sexlessly rub noses in the dead of night with Dwight from The Office.

Dysfunction in Large Social/Family Gatherings Winner: the Pfeffermans

Parties thrown by both the Fishers and the Pfeffermans are emotionally dangerous occasions. The families are almost equal in their abilities to completely desiccate a joyous (or reverently sombre) occasion. For the Fishers, a particularly memorable example includes a dinner party where Nate tries to woo his step-sister in the same house as his wife, and then takes out his frustration by furiously killing a bird with a broom in front of his party guests. And then there’s the fact that so many of their parties are, purely, funerals.

But even with that in mind, the Peffermans take — and squash — the cake, as in the scene where the wedding cake from Sarah’s abruptly cancelled wedding gets eaten, and then violently launched into the pool, by her jilted ex. Then there’s the actual wedding reception that preceded the cake incident, where Sarah decided to end a marriage that began only hours ago. Or the aforementioned shiva where the dead’s memory is completely overwhelmed by the tensions felt by the living. Or the Yom Kippur party that Shelley turns into a raging sob-fest when Josh announces his rabbi fiancé has left him. The Fishers can actually use parties as real moments of familial unity; the Pfeffermans are unified at random, unexpected moments on a day-to-day basis, and they seem to use parties solely to bulldoze each other.

Dysfunctional Marriage Winner: The Fishers (particularly Ruth and George)

There are some pretty clear issues with Maura and Shelley’s marriage (the fact that Maura didn’t fully comprehend a huge part of herself, and thus had to hide her growing understanding by stealing away to, say, a cross-dressing camp). But they are still exceedingly sympathetic towards one another following their divorce — at least until they briefly rekindle a spark in the second season. Like Maura, the late Nathaniel Fisher had a side of himself he wouldn’t share with his wife, and so he actually had a strange room he’d go to — a room whose purpose is never revealed — above an Indian restaurant. Unlike Maura and Shelley, Nathaniel’s death and secrecy means that his spouse will never comprehend him fully. Beyond this is Ruth’s less understatedly dysfunctional second marriage. She impulsively becomes attached to a lovely man she meets at a hardware store…who turns out to be a serial monogamist with psychotic depression that leads him to hide out in the Fishers’ bomb shelter.

Dysfunctional Parental Relationships Winner: The Pfeffermans

None of these categories of “dysfunction” suggest a lack of love. This one’s difficult, because both Maura and Shelley are loving parents, but the bitterness that comes out in an intergenerational fashion here is pretty unparalleled. (As, quite often, is the affection.) Overall, the Pfeffermans are just a far more expressive family than the Fishers, and the awful things they can do to each other are consequently more shocking.

Ali will always be somewhat selfish, but the way Maura calls her out about it at a shiva — at which none of them truly mourned the lost — at the end of Season 2 is one of the more venomous scenes on recent TV. Also, the complex relationship both Shelley and Maura have to the fact that Josh was molested, and how they kept the fact that he had a child a secret from him, now seems like it’ll be a permanent scar on their relationship.

The Fisher children, meanwhile, were never as close with their parents (one of whom dies at the beginning of Six Feet Under), which means they have less room to harm each other. Their dysfunction exists in what’s not said, in the absences between occasional outbursts of expressions of love.

Dysfunctional Sibling Relations Winner: The Fishers

While the Pfeffermans certainly have their grudges, none of them quite matches the acrimony David feels towards Nate early in Six Feet Under. “Jesus. Put your dicks out and measure them. Let’s get this over with,” Claire exclaims in the first episode, in response to the immediate sense of competition established whenever the two are in the same room. David, who never left home and who is the heir to the family business, is envious of Nate, whose hippie sensibilities took him to Seattle to work in a food co-op and never floss. Nate similarly disdains his own unrooted life (literally: he bemoans having a series of root canals due to the whole not-having-the-self-respect-to-floss thing). But Nate’s return to family values just happens to further perturb David, because now all of a sudden, Nate can effortlessly fall back into the family business and favor without having paid his dues. Of course, the tension is compounded by David’s insecurity about his sexuality.

Traumatic Family Histories… Leading to Current Dysfunctionality Winner: the Pfeffermans

This one unequivocally goes to the Pfeffermans, though one wouldn’t have known it until this season. As Ali becomes interested in “genetic trauma,” the family’s past in pre-Holocaust Berlin weaves its way through the season, focusing on Gittel, Maura’s trans aunt, played by Hari Nef. As this plot line unravels, we see how Maura’s mother was pried away from her sister — whose fate as a trans Jew is pretty obvious — not long before she gave birth to Maura upon moving to America. This history and this loss, the season suggests, is an intrinsic link to the sense of longing, incompletion and uncertainty that courses through the Pfeffermans’ existence. (On Six Feet Under, Ruth describes — pretty much in passing — a difficult child in an apartment with an impoverished amputee mother… but I think we can give this one to the Pfeffermans.)

Aaaaand the winner (of this completely unquantifiable thing) is: The Fishers!