Review: The unbearable poignancy of Showtime's 'Time of Death'

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Image Credit: D&J Productions/Showtime

Death is everywhere on television. It rides a pale horse on Sleepy Hollow. It keeps Castle, Bones, and so much of CBS in business. It walks, it sucks, it makes for a nice tenderloin. Occasionally, scripted series will give death the “very special episode” treatment, sometimes to write out a cast member or deal with real-life circumstances, as was the case with Glee’s Oct. 10 farewell to Finn and the actor who played him, the late Cory Monteith. When the great shows have grappled with death as a theme, they have produced some of their most memorable work. “Love’s Labor Lost” on E.R. (1995). “The Body” on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001). “A, My Name Is Alex” on Family Ties (1987). “Chuckles Bites the Dust” on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1975). Every (good) week of Six Feet Under. While all different, those classics presented death in a way that most television shows present death: As a catastrophic surprise that forces a confrontation with mortality. The focus is usually on those left behind than the deceased or dispiriting process of dying itself. The point is usually the same: Death is part of life; deal with it, then resume the franchise of living without much change. And quickly. Truth is, TV doesn’t like to sit in the ashes for too long. Who does?

Showtime’s Time of Death (premiering Friday at 9 p.m. ET) is the corrective to cultural narratives that trivialize death, that present death as a random sudden-impact shocker, that dramatize death as just another obstacle for a hero to overcome. This six-part docuseries gives us death as it is likely to happen to all of us: a degenerative, possibly excruciating decline that culminates with the disorienting, gasping fade known as “actively dying.” The episodes track the final months, days, and, when possible, very last moment of life of several terminally ill people, and each one tells at least two stories. There is a complete profile of a single subject, and there is a peek into the series-long chronicle of Maria Lencioni, 48, divorced, a mother of three children (an adult daughter; two teenagers), and suffering from breast cancer that’s spreading throughout her body. Time of Death is a feeling experience first, an opportunity for reflection and application second. And yes, it is extremely difficult to watch. After the second episode, I didn’t know if I wanted to continue or could. It’s not just overwhelmingly sad — it is overwhelmingly rich. Which is also why, by the sixth and final episode, I was bummed that there was no more. No, you do not want to watch this show. You’ll be glad you did. I doubt you’ll spend time with a more compelling group of characters or witness more complex human drama on any show this season.

We meet the dying with enough time and energy left to give us sufficient sense of their personality and history. Hence, we get to know the life that is about to pass away, and more importantly, we understand how they view themselves as they gird for whatever comes next, if anything. Even Cheyenne Bertiloni — a once handsome, hard-bodied MMA fighter, private investigator, bodyguard, deep sea diver, and incorrigible lady-killer, now shrunken and shriveled and rendered mute by ALS — is capable of revealing much about himself with his lively eyes and an optically controlled keyboard that gives robotic voice to his words. And what he will tell you with his absurdly chirpy digital voice is that he believes his bad choices — including a shameful crime that landed him jail — deserve hell. Cheyenne is far from a portrait of damnation, but that’s neither here nor there: the storytelling is not too interested in judging its subjects or challenging their belief systems. It is most interested in capturing how they try to create a meaningful experience for themselves and their families — a party; a road trip; a reconciliation — and a meaningful sense of themselves that they can take into the grave, even as their bodies conspire against that very project by slowly failing them, by breaking their personhood before breaking down altogether. Laura Kovarik, 63, is a woman of strong faith and self-deprecating humor; watching cancer dull the light in her eyes and turn her body into a prison for however much of her consciousness-soul-whatever remains is to behold hell on earth.

Time of Death also showcases the caregivers to the dying, be they husbands, wives, daughters, sons, lovers, or professionals. It captures well how their heightened feeling of purpose amid crisis, the feeling of impotence in the face of unfixable brokenness, the feeling of being completely lost after it’s all over. The best love story I have seen on television in years belongs to Mel and Lenore Leffer. Mel knows that the death his wife, 75, will devastate him, and it does. In our last scenes with him, we watch Mel join his sons and their wives and children in a grieving ritual that hopes for life after the death, but his last look to camera and his final words say something else, something harder. Haunting.

Time of Death debunks various stereotypes, assumptions, and even wishes about death and dying. For those losing their life, there is no ability to issue profound last words, no steely possession of full and sound mind before willfully choosing to let go. The show dotes on the physical reality of “active dying,” the protracted period of time when a body systematically shuts down, making the exact moment of expiration a more subtle, even imperceptible thing. For those losing a loved one, there is no satisfying goodbye or cathartic final encounter. Like Mel, Verda Bradley is blessed with a long, fulfilling marriage and can’t imagine life without Brad, 78, her best friend and tireless provider. She thinks their last days together should be full of conversation. Instead, they struggle to know what to say to each other.

And then there is the epic Maria arc, which defies all of our wants and expectations about dying and stories about it. She is a tough, too-tough soul with simple, last-act ambitions that are both heroically selfless and reasonably selfish: To be an active mom to her teenage children to the very end; to groom her adult daughter Nicole (“Little” to most everyone) to become the kids’ guardian and prevent their allegedly abusive father from gaining custody; and to die peacefully. What happens instead is much more complicated, thanks to Maria’s I-can-do-this-by-myself approach to living/dying, the immaturity and confusion of her children, and the cruel vagaries of her disease. Maria has, arguably, the most tragic of all the deaths on the show, and she passes with so much unresolved with her children. In her bedroom, an inspirational quote is mounted on the wall: “Love your life as it is today. Now. So these moments of happiness you’re waiting for do not pass you by.” Maria’s story dramatizes how difficult that maxim is to live out when you feel like — in her words — “you’re carrying around a 300-pound suitcase full of poop.” In Time of Death, victory is relative, but there is plenty of sting.

There were a few moments when I questioned the authenticity of Time of Death. Not so much in the sense of things being staged.  But I often wondered about what influence, if any, that the cameras and everything they represent — the awareness of being watched; the anxiety of being judged — had on behavior. For example: Did the documentary contribute to the burden of Maria’s kids? It’s hard enough prepping for the death of your mom (or denying it). The example of Julia suggests that asking an adolescent — a hyper-sensitive creature in the best of circumstances — to have her experience recorded, warts and all, only amplifies that stress.

And yet, Time of Death succeeds because its subjects and their families are willing to open their doors, let down their defenses, and surrender all vanity as they waste away. By sharing themselves this way, our capacity and empathy is stretched, and we gain insight and ideas for when death comes for us. Even when they fail, it can be poignant. If there’s a story that could be called “disappointing,” it belongs to Toni Yancey, 55, an author, fitness advocate, social activist, and all-around extraordinary soul. Her devoted, protective life partner Darlene makes the choice to deny the cameras access to Toni during her final hours, citing a malfunction with a pump that administered pain medication. The implication seems to be that Darlene wanted Toni to die with dignity, and she wasn’t comfortable sharing anything less with the world. The true loss to the narrative is that we don’t get to witness the “ritual” that Darlene had devised to “release” Toni from this world and help their family begin grieving. Later, Darlene wonders if she made a mistake. That she’s willing to openly second-guess, even a little bit, her perfectly understandable, there-is-no-wrong-choice-here choice — to worry about letting us down during her grief — breaks your heart. The worst part of Time of Death is that it’s impossible to hug the people you see on screen. Because you’re going to want to do that. A lot.

The effect that Time of Death will have on an audience could depend on their familiarity and personal experience with terminal illness and loss. You might find the profiles unbearable. You might think they don’t cut deep enough. There is an argument to be made that the episodes suffer from not surveying a broader cross-section of dying experience. A sequel, perhaps, might capture a more diverse group of religious, ethnic, socio-economic perspectives, or drill down deeply on one of them. And yet, part of the point of the series is that death and dying is both universal and personal, the same and different for everyone, and we all benefit by sharing our unique stories and varying, unequal knowledge with each other. The show is a Rorschach test for our own current attitudes and fears about death. Let some or all of these six hours spark a conversation, if possible; don’t just absorb it and file it away. Given my high regard and multiple boxes of tissues that it cost me, allow me to admit my bias: My wife has brain cancer; her future is uncertain. As the caregiver, I frequently feel like I’m blowing it. Of all the stories in Time of Death, Maria’s had the most resonance. I am grateful that she and her kids had the guts — or lacked the filter — to exhibit the good, the bad, and the ugly that the cancer life can bring out in you. (“A working family might be a major plus right now!” Maria quips, all too seriously. That hit home.) At one point, you will hear Maria’s son Andrew coldly consider the notion that life would be better, easier, less stressful if his mom would die. That was one of those hug-the-TV moments for me. Thank you, Andrew, for being brave enough to say such things; thank you, Time of Death, that rare “very special” TV show about death that deserves the billing.

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