Family Plots
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Family Plots

It certainly seems that death is the in topic for cable episodic television. With the success of Six Feet Under and Dead Like me A&E added a bit of reality TV and came up with Family Plots, a look at a real family operated funeral business. The show focuses on the Wissmiller sisters. Melissa is the eldest who serves as an Assistant Funeral Director and fiancée of the Mortuary Director Rick. Shonna, the middle sister is the Head Mortician and embalmer while the youngest sister Emily is the Office Manager and Funeral Director Trainee. Even the patriarch of the Wissmiller clan, Chuck is in the mix as the one who collects the bodies. The focus of the show is a mixture of the behind the scenes work required for a funeral, the interaction of the employees with the grieving families pervaded at all times with the usual family interactions. Despite the fact that the backdrop is a place where death is the daily business the family is a balance of normality and dysfunction as any one around. While so many reality television shows are so obviously ‘guided’ by the production company this one has a natural flow, the audience gets a sense of looking in on real people doing a real job.

For those like me that are fans of Six Feet Under, the HBO series depicting a family run mortuary, the similarities with Family plots ends with that description. Rather than being set in a cozy home this show looks like so many offices that I have worked. There are numerous phones to answer, little cubicles for the employees and an ever changing white board for appointments. I could intellectually understand that a funeral home is just like any other business but seeing it drove home the fact that for people like the Wissmillers death is just part of every day at the office. Part of the garage is even put aside for a smoking lounge, the site of much of the office and family gossip. As you might imagine each person depicted here has somewhat of a required split personality. In the employees only section they laugh, joke around and act as any one would in the office. In front of the clients they demeanor appropriately changes to a calming, reassuring one.

Not only does each of the sisters hold a well defined role in the business they also remain siblings. My wife comes from a family of three daughters and I see a lot of the interactions between her and her sisters at work here. Melissa as the eldest is the go to person. Typically quiet she is often called upon to step in and resolve the family squabbles that come up. The middle sister Shonna is the workaholic, she is forceful and more outspoken. Perhaps her job of working most directly with the deceased requires her to compensate with the living. She is seems more comfortable with the dead, in her back room she is in complete control of her world. Emily, the youngest is the most playful. In one episode she instigates a plot for the clan to sign her divorced father up in an online dating service. She also acted as the peacekeeper when their mother dropped by to help during a particularly busy time. The father Chuck is a wannabe lothario, always on the make for a much younger woman. The daughters appear to have learned to accept this and work around it.

While one episode might focus more on the family interaction the next will delve deeper into the human aspects of the business. In one scene Shonna is called upon to help two older women that, due to a religious custom, have requested to dress their deceased mother. The way the normally loud Shonna switched gears to the deferring and supportive side of her personality was very interesting to watch. The same goes for Melissa, who uses her quiet nature to reassure the client families in a great time of grief and distress. While most of us have to put on that professional face while at work here the way the public views the employees has to be a complete change from the back office personality. After all, their livelihood is ultimately based upon the grief on others.

There is a natural feel to the production of this series. Unlike other reality shows there are no stunts, no challenges other than the ones life, and death tosses their way. I did not get the feeling that any aspect of the events depicted where scripted. I’m sure that each story line is helped in post production and editing but at least A&E had the good sense not to make it as overt as most reality shows do. The producers also do not restrict their look at this family to the office. There are frequent scenes set in their homes, particularly father Chuck who shares his apartment with a huge white cat.

The show is worth a look for most. Rest assured that there are no graphic scenes of the deceased, the brief glimpses of the bodies is handled with respect and good taste. The bottom line is this is a family that chose to work together in a business that is required no matter what the economic environment holds and is all too often feared and misunderstood by the public. Too many films and television shows depict those in the mortuary business are humorless, unemotional people always dressed in black. Here we get tot see that these people that serve in the greatest time of need are very human themselves. The series mixes humor and serious topics in a fashion that is ultimately entertaining.

Posted 6/8/04

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