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‘Buried by the Bernards’ Is a Different Kind of Netflix Reality Show

Following a Memphis family who runs a funeral home, the series has more TLC vibes and less of the streamer’s usual polish. That’s both an advantage and a disadvantage.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The foremost family show about a funeral home will forever be Six Feet Under, the early-aughts dramedy that spawned True Blood, Transparent, and with its iconic finale montage, the pop stardom of Sia. An underappreciated part of HBO’s Golden Age revolution, Six Feet Under turned the grieving Fisher family into avatars of sad white people in Los Angeles, an archetype that would soon anchor an entire subgenre in itself. Every cold open featured some inventive new death, and every subsequent hour showed the Fishers helping other families manage their trauma even as they neglected to cope with their own.

As part of its unscripted expansion, Netflix has become the latest network to borrow buzzy concepts wholesale and restage them with real people. Most recently, Bling Empire was a transparent riff on Crazy Rich Asians, a strategy understandably borrowed from such longstanding precedents as the Real Housewives franchise. But while Buried by the Bernards, which premiered on the service last Friday, may be another family show about a funeral home, the eight-episode season plays out nothing like Six Feet Under.

Nor is it much like the rest of Netflix’s reality slate. With some notable exceptions—the charming chaos of Nailed It!; the less-charming chaos of Love Is Blind or Too Hot to Handle—Netflix reality tends towards a kind of glossy hauteur. There’s the aspirational, urbane feel of Chef’s Table, Selling Sunset, or Dating Around. There are also the unscripted offerings so elite they transcend mere “reality” and become “docuseries”: think Cheer or Lenox Hill, probing looks into a world rarely visible from the outside. The mortuary industry, with its potent mix of sterile craft and intense emotion, could make an ideal candidate for such a show. But Buried by the Bernards has no interest in being a docuseries.

Instead, Buried by the Bernards is a goofy family sitcom, bringing Netflix into A&E or TLC’s territory rather than HBO’s. Set at R. Bernard Funeral Services in Memphis, Tennessee, Buried by the Bernards focuses less on the “funeral” part of its namesake and more on the “Bernard.” The family dynamics are easy to grasp: There’s matriarch Debbie, who cofounded the funeral home in 2017 with her put-upon son Ryan; Ryan’s daughters Deja and Raegan, who help out in the office while rolling their eyes at the elders; and Debbie’s brother Kevin, a classic zany uncle type who sounds like his cigarettes smoke cigarettes. The ins and outs of their profession are less apparent, and remain so throughout the season.

The Bernards previously built a profile with a handful of marketing stunts. There’s a drive-through viewing window, a publicity play that’s unintentionally well suited to the demands of socially distanced mourning. (Buried by the Bernards was filmed in early 2020, slipping in just under the wire to wrap before lockdown.) And then there was a viral commercial touting R. Bernard’s low prices, starring Kevin as a reanimated corpse; a midseason subplot features Debbie demanding, then directing, a follow-up to what’s become the business’s calling card. Such hooks accurately forecast the show’s kooky vibe, an obvious contrast with the actual tasks at hand, if not ones the show cares to dwell on.

Buried by the Bernards takes the sitcom model quite literally. Each episode has multiple plots of varying precedence, all wrapping up neatly before the half-hour’s end: Kevin buying a hearse or taking a makeup lesson to improve his cadaver-handling skills; Raegan choosing a college to attend; Debbie’s ill-fated foray into online dating. What little there is in terms of overarching plot is often a matter of basic chronology, like Deja’s pregnancy. Other story lines include Deja and Raegan’s reasonable squeamishness about the more hands-on aspects of the funeral industry and Debbie’s domineering streak. (She refuses to delegate authority and insists college these days is full of free amenities, showing a less-than-full grasp of the spiraling student debt crisis.) None of the conflicts are too big to resolve, nor too heavy to weigh on the viewer much after they press “pause.”

Ryan has said that producers’ pitch to the Bernards was to “focus [the show] on the family and not the business.” That promise bears out in the end result, which keeps the mood light but the show frustratingly insubstantial. We see only a handful of actual mourners, let alone funeral services; when cadavers are shown on screen, they’re carefully positioned to obscure their faces. Not that Buried by the Bernards needs to show us death for death’s sake. It’s all too easy to picture how a funeral home reality show could turn exploitative or lurid; even asking families to film something as intimate and vulnerable as a grieving ritual is cringeworthy to imagine. Which is exactly why “funeral home reality show” sounds so counterintuitive in the first place; there’s a reason Six Feet Under opted to invent its twists and turns. The show’s focus is an understandable choice for a variety of tonal, legal, and ethical reasons. But it also makes Buried by the Bernards more generic, and less illuminating, than its offbeat premise suggests.

The difficulty of the task at hand doesn’t mean it’s altogether impossible. Lenox Hill had to painstakingly obtain releases in order to navigate patient privacy laws and was rewarded with an enduring account of a city in crisis. One could argue Buried by the Bernards just isn’t interested in that kind of ambition, but there are nuggets of sociological interest buried at the margins. Ryan makes an offhand comment about how Black families like his own, and the vast majority of his clientele, generally don’t opt for cremations; the funeral home’s oft-touted low prices are positioned as a way to be of service to a community in need. Yet these observations are never developed into full-fledged themes; the viewer has to squint to make them out.

Looming over a show about death and dying, of course, is the devastation we’ve all endured this past year, especially communities like the Bernards’. (Tennessee has the fifth-highest case rate in the nation, per the CDC; across the country, the death rate among Black Americans has been disproportionately high.) Even a show that actively tries to be escapist can’t transcend subject matter this heavy—far heavier than the Bernards could have anticipated when they were mugging for the cameras. In the end, Buried with the Bernards is unfortunately trapped between the light and the macabre. Then again, where better for a show about funerals to end up than in purgatory?