Daring Docu-series Deals With Death

“She’s like not breathing and she’s blue and like stiff and like f***ing dead,” Nicole, a 25 year old woman, said to the 911 operator asking why she thinks her mother is dead.

This is the abrupt opening of Showtime’s new documentary series, “Time of Death.” If you’re looking for a good cry, this mini-series will do the trick. The premiere alone was hard to watch (I had to stop multiple times), but it’s amazing. Each episode follows two terminally ill people.

Every week we see Maria, a middle aged woman with three children and stage IV breast cancer. Statistically, Maria is alive well after what science would predict. She mentioned, “Don’t believe everything you read” after citing that the American Cancer Society predicts that someone in her position has about 18 months to live. She has survived four years with her diagnosis. It almost makes a viewer feel hopeful until you remember that no one on this show is getting a happy ending.

Each episode also follows a secondary person whose storyline is contained to just one episode. The premiere follows Michael, 47, a war veteran diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer usually found in pediatric patients. While Maria doesn’t look sick to the unsuspecting stranger, Michael is pale and gaunt, restricted to a wheel chair and forced to have a nasal cannula (a tube under his nose) for oxygen.

When questioned about his smoking, Michael said, “I’m dying. What’s it matter now?”

Michael openly admits to not being a good person, which is so interesting. He could easily victimize himself, but he doesn’t at all. He talked about doing almost every drug he could as a young man and hitting his first wife, Andrea. Andrea appears on one of Michael’s last days to say goodbye, and they reconcile their feelings, letting go of grudges held.

It was tough to watch as cameras captured Michael’s last moments on earth. Viewers actually see his death and his funeral. Equally hard to watch are the reactions of Maria’s kids.

Her daughter Julia, 15, and son, Michael, 14, talk about their greatest fears. They both fear living with their dad, though they never specify why. This leaves custody to go to their half-sister, Nicole, 25. Nicole is preparing to be the guardian of these kids, but they have a lot of struggles. Nicole isn’t as nurturing as their mother, and all three are dealing with the idea of losing their mother differently.

It’s heartbreaking to listen to a 15-year-old girl say that she is prepared for her mother to die within the next two weeks or two years.

It’s a documentary, not reality television. The people acknowledge the cameras. The filmmakers even ask Maria why she participated in their project. “Well, I think it’s like the big elephant in the room that nobody ever wants to talk about. We’re all going to die someday. but what’s it going to look like at the end?…I hope, in some way, it might help somebody else facing this horrible life altering-life ending?-dilemma.”

So why watch a show about death? Television often trivializes death with shows like “CSI,” “Dexter” and tons of others. It’s a weekly occurrence that we don’t really bat an eye at. “Time of Death” shows the realities of being near death. It deals with the family left behind and the caretakers who are hired to help the patients through death.

The people don’t need added drama, like a reality show. They’re dying. They don’t care how they’re seen because they understand that they’ll be dead when this airs, so they are completely and strikingly honest.

It’s not an easy show to watch. This wasn’t created for viewers to forget their troubles and become involved in a character’s life. It’s a show that makes viewers face ugly realities. It’s a show that everyone can relate to, which is what makes it so hard to watch. If you haven’t been through this with a loved one, you know that there is a good chance that you will eventually have to experience something like this.

It’s honest, though. It doesn’t glorify anything about the process of death and dying. I think it could ultimately be really therapeutic for anyone currently going through this process.

It’s authentic and compelling, and that’s exactly what makes a good documentary series.

“Time of Death” airs on Showtime on Fridays at 9 pm.

PHOTO TAKEN from afterellen.com