The compelling but emotionally exhausting documentary gets up close and extremely personal during the last moments of people's lives.
Showtime's heavy six-part documentary series Time of Death is a difficult piece of work. In each hour, viewers follow the continuing story of Maria and her three children (Nicole, Julia and Andrew) as they struggle to come to grips with her cancer diagnosis and limited remaining time. Each episode also introduces viewers to a second story, explored just during that hour, of another family coping with the death of a loved one.
The subject of death is nearly taboo in American culture, but the beautifully filmed Time of Death is minimalist in its presentation of these many passings, refraining from narration or the inclusion of information or statistics. The portrait of each family, and of each person approaching their death, is extremely intimate -- arguably to the point of invasiveness. The documentary does not shy away from filming the actual moments leading up to and following death, though the camera does look away at the exact moment of passing. While most of the deaths are peaceful (one in the premiere episode, however, is particularly chaotic), the effect is still unsettling.
The confrontation of those unsettled feelings seems to be what executive producers Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz, Alexandra Lipsitz, Cynthia Childs and Casey Kriley are hoping for. Though some of their other individual projects are among the frothiest on air (Project Runway, Fashion Star, Top Chef), Time of Death is insistent in its difficult approach. In each episode, viewers watch a compelling story of a person wasting away, as their family looks on with a mixture of supreme sadness that their loved one is gone and relief that the pain is over.
To the documentary's credit, the selection of those filmed (many of whom speak to why they wanted to participate: mostly to help others cope with similar issues and feelings) runs a gamut of ages and personalities. There is no sanctification, either. Honesty is laid bare in the final weeks, days and hours, and those who lived lives of vice, or full of moments they regret, admit to that freely. Religion factors in sometimes, and others times it doesn't. Some families care for their loved ones by themselves, others use hospice. The most beautiful part usually is how families, however broken, unite and support one another during the difficult time.
Still, the driving force of Time of Death is Maria's family, whose situation is uniquely tragic because it is daughter Nicole, 25, who needs to gain custody of her two teenage half siblings. It's an enormous burden for her to carry, but the fiery personality of every member of the family makes things emotional and honest throughout. At one point, Nicole tells a friend, "as long as Julia doesn't get pregnant and Andrew doesn't kill himself and they do their homework…it should be OK." She's only half joking, but throughout the six episodes viewers watch Nicole mature from an extremely temperamental force to someone really ready to care for "the kids," as she calls them.
As Time of Death progresses, one gets the feeling that a documentary just about Maria's family would have been enough. The documentary starts with her death, then rewinds to several months before, so its inevitability hangs over everything, even when Maria seems to be fighting it. While the other stories are compelling, the constant influx of new faces for viewers to watch die every hour is hard. And without Maria's story, it would be difficult to find a reason to keep subjecting yourself to the pain; after confronting one difficult death, why go through seven others?
As one participant's doctor says, "as a society we need to dignify death, and make it a natural part of living." Time of Death will probably succeed for some viewers in starting that dialogue. In other ways, the intimate filming style can also augment the idea that these vignettes are somehow too invasive -- the camera lingering on a lifeless body never feels quite right. Then again, maybe that is the point: to make viewers uncomfortable, thinking about mortality. As a viewing strategy, though, it remains to be seen how many will willingly go through such an emotional onslaught when the ending has -- when all the endings have -- already been written.