One of our great achievements in American culture over the last few decades has gone mostly, quietly unnoticed: We’re getting a lot better at death.
Despite botox and youth worship, baby boomers and Generation X are changing the rituals and customs of a frank and noble exit. Funerals are more casual, celebratory in tone — with biographical videos, favorite pop songs and even a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses worn by the deceased. Cremation is becoming a more popular and affordable option, dramatically shifting the definition of a final resting place. And enough of us now know first-hand that real angels and heroes work in the fields of hospice and palliative care.
I rarely insist that anybody watch anything on TV, but I strongly recommend that you watch as much as you can of “Time of Death,” Showtime’s unflinchingly honest docu-series (premiering Friday night) about what it’s like to die — and what it’s like for our loved ones to watch us go.
I get that it’s not going to be a TV show for all. It’s hard stuff. If you and your loved ones are planning to live forever then, by all means, skip it. If, on the other hand, you are an adult with a firm grip on reality (and perhaps faith), you will likely find yourself transfixed by the gentle and elegant ways that “Time of Death” takes us into the final weeks of eight women and men, ages 19 to 78, each losing a fight against a terminal illness.
Conceived and produced by some of the same people behind “Project Runway” and “Top Chef,” “Time of Death” bears the dignified, documentary-style traits that reality TV had in its earliest days: It is desperately interested in observing people up-close, as they are, and will not turn away when things get too real. It has a deep well of empathy that is unclouded by saccharine attempts at sympathy. The producers don’t try to guide what’s happening into narrative convenience. All the show has to do is wait patiently for its subjects to die.
Remarkably, this doesn’t feel intrusive. When death comes in each of the six episodes, it often feels like a beautiful release of stress for the dying person as well as for family and friends. And, in an almost profound way, for the viewer.
The series’s main through-line focuses on 48-year-old Maria Lencioni, a free-spirited single mom in Santa Cruz, Calif., who is facing the final stages of breast cancer. Maria’s story continues through each episode as she attempts a final round of chemotherapy and as her adult daughter, Nicole, prepares to take custody of Maria’s miscreant teenagers. It quickly becomes clear that Nicole isn’t ready to be a parent to her half-siblings; one of Maria’s last acts, heartbreakingly, is to put the teens in foster care.
Although the drama in Maria’s household would at first seem to stray from “Time of Death’s” trajectory toward deathbed scenes, it is very much in tune with the show’s real goal of showing how families will — and sometimes stubbornly won’t — come together when a loved one nears the end.
Laura Kovarik, 63, also at the end stage of breast cancer, embarks on a road trip from Long Beach, Calif., to Colorado Springs, accompanied by her single daughter (and care provider) Lisa. Laura hopes the drive will rekindle happy memories of family car trips and frequent stops at tourist traps, but after the first day, her energy flags. Meanwhile, Lisa must deal with resentment toward her older sister, Laura’s other daughter, who keeps death and the family discord at arm’s length.
There are others: A 47-year-old former mixed-martial arts fighter is paralyzed by ALS, but reunites with his estranged mother and the two sons that he never knew. He goes out with calm acceptance and a sharp sense of humor expressed in the robotic voice of his special computer. We also meet a 75-year-old grandmother and psychotherapist (who specialized in grief and death issues) as she throws herself a farewell party before the end in order to tell everyone how much she loves them.
In more than one episode, as the subjects began “actively dying” (in hospice parlance), the families who participated in “Time of Death” shut the bedroom door or asked the cameras to wait outside. The hesitation is understandable and yet vaguely disappointing. In still another episode, neither the camera nor the family members were present when the subject died; the camera is instead there when a relative arrives and discovers that this person died alone.
Most movingly, in episode 6, we meet Nicolle Kissee, a 19-year-old skin cancer patient whose swift decline left her in a fog of pain. Her younger sisters hover on the periphery; one is simply too frightened to join the family in Nicolle’s bedroom when the time comes. The Kissee family is the most open and expressive with their love and grief as they — and we — say goodbye to their daughter.
I watched all the episodes consecutively and came away exhausted, but I also came away with a sense of comfort that I still can’t quite describe. It was gratitude, in part, to the subjects and their families for letting the cameras in. “Time of Death” is vital and meaningful television; if you watch, I hope it gives you the same peace and understanding it gave me.
(one hour) premieres at Friday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.