Mortality and decency: how fun TV got dark and insightful


This article contains spoilers for The Good Place and Russian Doll.

Shows like The Good Place and Russian Doll are using the parameters of sci-fi to make us think about our own mortality and what we owe to each other – and this thoughtful, considered approach to TV is giving viewers the space to ponder some very real philosophical and moral issues, while watching series that are still fun and entertaining.

I started watching The Good Place thinking it would be a light, fun easy watch. It caught me off guard, then, when it prompted me to think about philosophy and mortality and contemplating – in a way I never really had before – how our every action is measured, not just for ourselves but for those around us too.

The Good Place‘s first season is something of a slow build, working on the original premise that an undeserving ‘imposter’ – Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop – had mistakenly been granted entry to heaven. What it then did with that concept is easily one of TV comedy’s best and boldest moves in years, one that prompted the characters – and the viewers – to question the degrees to which a person is either ‘bad’ or ‘good’. When we really thought about it, had we done enough to get into the actual good place?

The brilliance continued, then, as viewers saw these characters learn, as the show went on, that doing good was an end in itself and worth doing even if there was nothing to gain for them personally. Even the podcast for The Good Place ends each episode with host Marc Evan Jackson (who plays Shawn) asking his guests ‘What’s good?’.

Across three seasons of The Good Place, these characters are forced to confront their past actions: some they thought either weren’t so bad or were actually quite good. They are given the opportunity to look at the actions of others who they feel have wronged them in some way and by facing up to the realisation that we are all human and make mistakes they can finally start to let go of the bitterness and worry that has consumed them. The characters are also repeatedly made to look at the good and bad things they did during their lives and to face the consequences. But, perhaps more importantly, they are given the opportunity to actually go back and try again – to learn and to grow.

Getting the chance to try again is something that happens regularly to Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia in Netflix hit Russian Doll. In the show, which tells the story of a woman who suddenly finds herself dying over and over again and waking up back at the same point in her birthday party, that mortality was very real, and alarmingly repetitive.

With only eight short episodes in the first brilliant series (a second has now been confirmed), there is an urgency to Russian Doll. While the repetition used in Groundhog Day feels sadder and darker because he’s stuck living the same day over and over with no apparent escape, Russian Doll is more about solving a mystery before time collapses in on itself. After all, you can keep taking the top part off the Russian doll, but eventually you run out of dolls and are left with that tiny one right at the end.

The show’s deaths are usually so comical that you don’t feel the horror. Our heroine falls down things or into things in something of a prat-fall style. When one of the endings sees her freeze to death – an exit entirely devoid of any of the show’s previous humour – she fully acknowledges the horror of it, commenting to her own reflection (after a few choice expletives) that “That’s dark!”

When the catalyst behind Russian Doll’s mystery is discovered, and we see that the two leads are tied together because their deaths could have been avoided if only they had tried to help each other, the show becomes even more impressive. That one of the deaths was a suicide only makes the realisation that much more emotional and poignant.

By this point in the story, we are as invested in each of their lives as they have become in each other’s. We want them to be OK when only eight episodes earlier these people meant nothing to us. Similarly, in The Good Place, we want Eleanor to understand real love, for Jameela Jamil’s Tahani to stop competing for affection, for William Jackson Harper’s Chidi to relax and enjoy life. We’re so moved when Ted Danon’s Michael – who isn’t of this earth – learns the value of human connection.

Yes, these are works of fiction created to entertain and delight audiences and to be watched by as many viewers as possible. They have great one-liners and comedic timing and some superb physical comedy. But the extra depth to these shows means they are not merely there to be watched, enjoyed and forgotten. They are there to make us think and to ask questions, not simply absorb what we see and never scratch beneath the surface.

In both cases, the journey to the big reveal has been bonkers, clever and entertaining, but the pay-off at the end manages to seamlessly blend into something that is also incredibly insightful and moving. Both shows use the extra scope of a science fiction narrative to provide viewers with a story that is so much more than you first think, while also retaining all the surface fun and adventure.

They are each a celebration of people caring about other people, showing that it isn’t about being perfect but instead about looking out for our fellow humans. Yet they aren’t pitched as such – and they’re all the stronger for it. The way that extra layer is woven into their fabric is so beautifully done that, in the end, it might not be what you come for… but it is what you take with you.

Den Of Geek recommends 5 more… comedies to make you think

Forever

Don’t be put off by the fact that (criminally) Amazon Prime didn’t order more than one short season of this existential comedy, with Maya Rudoph and Fred Armisen as the leads, it has plenty to recommend it. You’re best to go in totally blind, and wait to fall under its strange spell.

BoJack Horseman

This animated comedy about an actor-horse voiced by Will Arnett deserves all the rave reviews it’s received since its 2014 debut. Over five seasons on Netflix, it’s taken absurd comedy to some dark and truly provocative places.

Kidding

Jim Carrey plays a children’s television presenter concealing deep personal tragedy from his public persona in this dark comedy drama, which has already been renewed for a second season. Carrey’s is a truly remarkable performance in a series produced by Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind filmmaker Michel Gondry. Kidding aired on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV here in the UK.

Rick And Morty

By now, nobody should need telling that Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s sci-fi animated comedy is more than just a bit of fun. All three seasons have been madly inventive and very funny, but with a bleak emotional honesty that can catch you unawares.

Barry

Critical acclaim has poured down on Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s thought-provoking Barry, the story of a hitman who finds himself unexpectedly in the world of amateur dramatics, and all of it’s richly deserved. Two seasons have aired on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV, with a third blessedly on the way.



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