This review first appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Despite its sensationalized title, TLC’s newest docudrama, Best Funeral Ever, is surprisingly not a monstrosity. The hourlong special (which, if popular, could produce a full series) chronicles the employees of the Dallas-based Golden Gate Funeral Home as they plan extravagant “home-going celebrations” for the dead. Unlike traditional funeral homes, Golden Gate specializes in a positive and theatrical ode to life. As owner John Beckwith Jr. says, “If [the deceased] wanted to dunk a basketball, we can make that happen.”
There’s no Weekend at Bernie’s crossover here, though. Golden Gate might decorate the casket or urn and put on a show around it, but a certain kind of dignity remains. Beckwith and his staff, all of whom have distinctive and colorful personalities (some of which are ripe for natural drama, such as when the bombastic Trendnard butts heads with cautious Eplunus), appear to genuinely want to give families of the deceased something to smile about. During the course of the hour they manage to do just that, eliciting genuine laughs and sincere emotion that can’t help but spill over to viewers.
Park Slope Productions, which created Best Funeral Ever (as well as the Discovery and OWN co-produced series Facing Trauma), comprises former Nightline producers Paul Reitano and Terrence Sacchi. They bill their company as one that works to produce a “higher standard” in reality fare, and they do manage to keep the show grounded. As Eplunus says, “There’s only so much you can do with a funeral, duh!” But Reitano and Sacchi have crafted a strange and surprisingly engaging piece of work from it.
“Strange” is certainly the operative word as Best Funeral Ever presents celebrations featuring pigs and other livestock, an urn riding a Ferris wheel, a barbecue sauce fountain, funeral home employees dressed as elves and, most curiously, provides professional mourners. The aspect of pro mourners (who are trained to grieve loudly and emphatically at the funerals of people they never met, in order to help the family “open up”) is when things start to turn fully toward the bizarre (“Earn your money! Bite your lip one more time!”). Golden Gate’s services are clearly appreciated by those who desire them, and the documentary keeps things from shifting toward the exploitative by not creating false drama. It’s a simple statement: “This is how it’s done here.”
Those tuning into Best Funeral Ever for a Honey Boo Boo-esque cringe factor will be disappointed. For others who allow the show to be itself, it’s a look inside a world where one might unexpectedly have, as Beckwith says, “the time of your eternal life.”