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Dead Tree Alert: How TV Does, and Doesn’t, Deal With Death

A remarkable documentary series boldly goes where most TV does not, but where someday all of us will.

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Maria Lencioni, whose struggle with terminal breast cancer is captured in Showtime's Time of Death.

How do you recommend a TV series that’s well-made, thought-provoking, deeply moving–and that most of your readers, with good reason, will not want to watch?

That was my conundrum reviewing Time of Death, a six-part documentary beginning Nov. 1 on Showtime. The series, in mostly unadorned vérité style, follows patients with terminal illnesses through treatment, hospice care, up to and beyond the moment of death. About half the series follows one story, that of single mom Maria Lencioni, while the other tells shorter stories of the last days of other patients and how they and their loved ones come to terms with the end.

As I write in my column in this week’s TIME (subscription required), the show is understated, thoughtful, and at times surprisingly cathartic and uplifting. But yeah: it’s about death, actual, unstylized, unglamorous death, and the emotional difficulty of accepting it. If you’d rather read about it than watch it, I can’t say I blame you; I’ve always hated reviews that say this or that traumatic work is something people “need to see.” I loved Time of Death, but much of the time I hated watching it.

That said, even though the series was rough—I cry at episodes of Masterchef Junior, so this wrecked me—I was glad to have watched it once I was done. My own dad died of illness years ago, and I found myself wishing that I had seen something like this before that had happened. For all the violence in our pop culture, as I write in the column, ordinary mundane dying is rarely dealt with in any kind of depth:

Death on TV is not exactly rare. AMC’s guts-spattered zombie series The Walking Dead drew over 20 million viewers for its Season 4 premiere. Shootings and serial killers abound. Life is cheap on TV, or rather death is–it’s plentiful, showy, devoid of realism or consequence. But ordinary death is a blank spot in our pop memory, one we’ve filled with monsters and explosions. After a steady diet of Hollywood deaths, real ones–the labored breathing, the body becoming a slack husk–seem uncanny, alien.

There have been a handful of extended TV treatments of death from natural causes. The Big C, with Laura Linney, recently finished its run in the only way it plausibly could, taking her character through the last days of death from cancer. Six Feet Under built its final arc around the death of central character Nate and the way his family—managers of a funeral home—dealt with the loss of one of their own. But these are rarities. Even Breaking Bad, whose events were precipitated by Walter White’s cancer diagnosis, was in a way about Walt’s denial of ordinary-guy mortality—his fight to avoid a mundane, wasting death, engineering a way for him to go out in his own hail of bullets rather than gasping his last breath alone in a cabin.

One of TV’s best episodes ever about an ordinary death came, ironically, in a show about the undead and the supernatural: the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body,” in which Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character comes home to find her mother unexpectedly dead on the couch. In many ways, Buffy is a textbook example of the way pop culture stylizes death to make it more palatable, the way horror makes death less horrifying–all those monsters vaporizing and melting into dust. Which made the quiet discovery of Joyce’s body, still and vacant-eyed, all the more devastating in its naturalism.

One of the subjects who volunteered for Time of Death was Lenore Lefer, a 75-year-old therapist with pancreatic cancer, who in her professional life specialized in grief counseling for survivors. She wanted to do the series, she said, because we live in a culture that denies and avoids death. (The producers—the Magical Elves group, better known for reality shows like Top Chef—give participants a lot of space to talk about the filming itself, and stop the cameras when they request it. Lenore herself asked that cameras not be present at the moment of her death, to give space to her family.)

I think she’s right, and I suspect we’d plan for and deal with death better if we weren’t so good at avoiding it. But watching Time of Death also gave me a greater appreciation for all the entertainments we’re developed to displace our fear of death. At one point during my binge-watch of the six episodes, I took a break to watch a screener of The Walking Dead, and its over-the-top gory re-killings were a strange kind of relief; never had I appreciated phony Hollywood death so much. (I wonder, in fact, if people who work around death for a living—nurses or hospice-care workers, say—need a similar kind of escape.)

So: if you can watch Time of Death, I recommend it, and if you don’t want to, I’m not going to judge. You might want to go back instead and watch season five of Buffy, which had the consideration to place “The Body” amidst a welcome complement of stories that were merely about monsters.