By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
8:00 AM EDT, November 1, 2013
Death is universal, inevitable, irrevocable and profound, and yet even in our reality-fixated times, it is rarely depicted on television.
Oh, people die all the time on TV. They fall victim to detective procedurals and hospital dramas, or are killed off on high-end serials looking to raise the emotional stakes. These days, many come back — with or without fangs, with or without subtitles.
But the process of dying, the visible physical ebb of life from a person's body, is not a narrative television cares to explore. As an A-plot, dying is a downer; it's the living who matter, whose stories move on.
The first and perhaps best thing about Showtime's six-part documentary series "Time of Death," which premieres Friday, is that it reminds us that the dying are, in fact, also the living. Death does not, in most cases, arrive swiftly, neatly final like a screen gone black or a sentence abruptly ended.
For many, death comes on gradually, insistently, slowing time and stripping it clean. And not just for the ailing, but for families and friends as well. As humans, we live and we die, and for a while — weeks, months, a few days — many of us do both.
"Time of Death" chronicles eight such deaths, documenting the tragedy of a sweet teenager stricken with skin cancer to a grandmother who, as a longtime grief counselor, considers her own death almost dispassionately, as the final chapter of a life's work. Acting as a framework for the series is the story of Maria, a single mother of three in the final stages of breast cancer. Where all the other stories appear in just one episode, Maria's story arches through all six, her 25-year-old daughter, "Little," serving as, if not a narrator exactly, then a narrative touchstone.
This is both a strength and a weakness. Little has moved back from L.A. to Santa Cruz to help take care of her mother and, more important, her teenage half siblings. Maria wants Little to become their guardian — their father is not part of the picture nor does anyone want him to be.
With her tattoos, hats and enormous blue eyes, Little is photogenic in a way that often distracts from the story — you can almost hear the reality "Party of Five" pitch. But she and her family serve an important role in the series, even beyond providing a through-line. The scenes from Maria's journey are the messiest, and the most moving. This is a family where anger and fear live side by side with love and admiration, and it shows. Often.
The other stories seem, by comparison, more carefully curated. Although the camera relentlessly details the physical deterioration of the participants and their families, there is an almost Victorian romanticizing of the sickroom. Michael, a veteran with a rare cancer, meets death with humor and firmness, apologizing to his parents for the anguish he caused them during his wild youth and reuniting briefly with his first ex-wife.
Lenore, the grief counselor diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, has a farewell party to announce her imminent demise before fading away in the embrace of her family. Cheyenne, a former MMA fighter paralyzed by ALS, speaks words of regret, serenity and wisdom with his eye-activated computer voice, has a devoted girlfriend and is touchingly reunited with two grown sons he never bothered to meet when he was well.
"Time of Death" is powerful stuff and difficult to watch. It's also impossible not to admire the courage and generosity of all those who agreed to be filmed during such a time. The unifying effect of the stricken may offer the strongest proof of our essential humanity — watching a man apologize for his sins with his final breaths, we eagerly forgive just as we would be forgiven.
Still, "Time of Death" is so determined to celebrate the power of a "good" death that it often tidies away the very things that makes bedside vigils so inspiring. The grimmer realities of the dying body are not dealt with — there isn't an adult diaper in sight — and with the exception of Maria, no voice is raised except in song.
Each story is inevitably heartbreaking — I could not bring myself to watch the teenager's death — but only Maria's story reflects the anger, fear and selfishness that the shadow of end can cause in even a loving heart.
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