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Something happened in the fifth episode of Casketeers, a reality show taped at a New Zealand funeral parlor, that reminded me why there’s nothing in the world like a great reality show.
Like the four previous episodes, this one begins with Francis Tipene — the jovial, fastidious, opinionated co-owner of Tipene Funerals — setting up the story. He has a problem, a good one for a mortician but a problem nonetheless.
“We’ve got bodies all over the place,” Francis says. “We need space for viewings and dressings, and so we’re just moving our bodies accordingly.”
An instant hit on New Zealand television, Casketeers was quickly picked up by Netflix for global distribution. As I noted earlier with Derry Girls, it’s nice that viewers like me no longer have to use Internet spoofing software just to watch other countries’ TV shows. (Even nicer is the fact that Netflix, which has gone far beyond any broadcast or cable network in making its shows accessible to the visually impaired, added an audio description track to Casketeers.)
Four episodes in, the basic tropes of the show are set. Tipene Funerals caters to Auckland’s sizable Maori and Tonga (Polynesian) populations, whose rites can involve days of lying in wait followed by elaborate and emotional graveside ceremonies. Francis fusses over every detail, whether the customer is Maori royalty or a single mother tragically killed in a shooting. He inspects and often corrects the handiwork of his employees.
Finding the lining of one casket not up to his standards he turns to Faliki, a cheerful, versatile worker whom, in another scene, Francis claims to love more than any other employee.
“Was it an honest mistake,” Francis asks him, “or you felt a bit tired?” Ouch. The staff have all worked for Francis for years and seem to take his tut-tuttery in stride.
And then there’s Kaiora. The co-owner of Tipene Funerals and wife of Francis, Kaiora is as particular about the bottom line as Francis is about casket lining. This is a recipe for business success and, it turns out, great TV as the two are continuously butting heads.
“Let’s not confuse how much I love her to how much I, sort of, don’t like working with her?” Francis says in his most diplomatic Kiwi lilt.
Most episodes have a storyline where Francis wants to buy something, or offer a “discount” to a sympathetic customer. Each time the response is a steely gaze and a few choice words from the missus.
So far I’m describing a decently-scouted reality show, of which thousands are made every year around the globe. What sets Casketeers apart is how it casts its gaze on a simple and often overlooked aspect of everyday life — in this case, death — and gives it surprising heft.
Special demands are made on Tipene Funerals, most having to do with Maori and Tonga customs. From what I can tell the show’s producers weren’t especially concerned with making a show for Americans, yet other than a few local references the universal language of loss and remembrance translates easily.
And that brings us back to episode five. The reason for all the bodies, it turns out, is the Maori custom of keeping the deceased on display for up to two weeks before burial. This not only puts a premium on good embalming but can create occasional traffic jams. Francis’ solution, as he explains, is to temporarily stow two bodies in a side room.
Wheeling the gurneys into the room, Francis parks them side by side, then faces one of them.
“Mr. Albert, this is Mrs. Havea,” he says, gesturing to the other body. Then he turns to Mrs. Havea and repeats the introduction.
Just as you’re tempted to laugh at this strange pantomime comes the hammer.
“Naturally we introduce them, it’s only right,” Francis explains matter-of-factly. “If they were alive we’d do that, and because they’re now passed away, we’ll still introduce them because we believe their wairua is still here.”
I hit pause, let the mist clear from my eyes, and then asked myself: How did they do that? How did they flood the zone with emotion so quickly?
The answer gives us insight into why these heavily-edited linear presentations of actual life — be they in documentary, podcast, social media, or reality form — have won the world. Francis Tipene, a human being with a fondness for sweets, whose wife won’t let him buy a bigger set of clothes, has let his professionalism take us to a place that Six Feet Under never did. The word he uses to describe what he does is “uplift” — taking a body that, according to science, has ceased to live and, with great solemnity, help move it to a higher plane where life continues.
I still remember something one of the creators of the Real Housewives franchise told me years ago: “We just let the ladies live their lives.” That is, no matter how many chopped-up, out-of-sequence chunks of video are fed into the storytelling mill, what comes out the other end will be a show about people as they really are. And I believe that’s true up to a point. When celebrities are the focus of reality shows, however, it becomes a dubious proposition, as famous people are usually more interested in projecting an image than letting their honest self (which they may secretly despise) come through. And here’s the rub — as soon as your reality show is a hit, you’re famous, even before Netflix buys the rights.
“Just Netflix, eh?” Kaiora told The Guardian’s reporter, adding, “It’s awkward to say, but business is good.” I’m sure it is. But watching Casketeers, I can’t help wishing that the Tipenes’ sudden fame and attending fortune prove to be fleeting. I just don’t want them to forget that what they do best is not make uplifting television shows, but uplift the departed.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter at @tvbarnagain.