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

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.
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