TV Features

TV Shows Us the Afterlife: 5 Reasons You're Better Off Dead

Want to contemplate morality and how difficult it is for 7.5 billion people to coexist without murdering each other? That's what TV is for. Also, Daniel Radcliffe is a mess.

Imagine being hit by a bus tomorrow and discovering the face of God is Steve Buscemi.

In that case, you've probably died and gone to the heaven featured in TBS' Miracle Workers, where Daniel Radcliffe plays Craig, a browbeaten bureaucrat at Heaven Inc. With Geraldine Viswanathan playing his new coworker Eliza, the two hope to save Earth from being blown up by God, who Buscemi delivers as an unshaven washout who shuffles around in a house robe.

Time Magazine

If that sounds unpleasant, go back to NBC's The Good Place. For three seasons, Kristen Bell has filled the role of rude Eleanor opposite Ted Danson as the eccentric "heaven architect" Michael. You could also turn to the afterlife represented in Netflix's Russian Doll or Amazon's Forever. Heaven is easy to find right now on TV and streaming platforms.

It's not a new trope, but it's currently more popular than ever. We're attuned to shows that take the unknown chaos that we fear is the afterlife and frame it as a familiar environment. In Miracle Workers, that structure is a corporate office. In The Good Place, it's a quaint small town. Russian Doll plants Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) in a purgatorial New York party, while Forever traps its married characters, June (Maya Rudolph) and Oscar (Fred Armisen), in a boring, suburban routine after their deaths.

Why are we drawn to shows about the afterlife? Perhaps our existential angst over today's political turmoil is piquing our curiosity about moral comeuppance, or maybe we just like jokes about angels being God's bitches. What do we gain from them? In determining which show you should prioritize–whether to simply binge watch or guide your reflections on your place in the cosmos–here's what captures our interest:

1. New perspective on the familiar

A pretentious New York party, the suffocating suburbs, and a downsizing corporate office are among the worst conceivable scenarios for an eternal afterlife. We know that business offices are human rat cages devoid of light and love, but Miracle Workers presents us with angels enduring that forever. Combining the traditions of Dogma and The Office, it not only forces us to re-examine claustrophobic work culture, but it challenges our perceptions of angels as divine intermediaries. They might just be desk jockeys and errand boys.

Similarly, Amazon's Forever depicts the suburbs as a literal hell–or at least a discomforting limbo. Imagine that porch sitting and chatty neighbors are all you have for eternity. The scenario, while impossible, begs you to reconsider whether all your creature comforts are worth the vapid monotony. Would the complacency be worthwhile if you shared that eternity with a spouse? Could you love someone enough to endure that blandness forever?


2. A God figure we can relate to


While Steve Buscemi gives a busted up version of the almighty in Miracle Workers, many shows don't tackle the mind-bending challenge of personifying God. Traditionally, God is boring. As a result, media's representations of God have ranged from boring (looking at you, John Milton, with that lame omnipotent in Paradise Lost), to comical (Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty), and childlike (Alanis Morrisette as God in Dogma was truth).

But an absent authoritarian figure is just as familiar to us as a flawed, off-kilter one. In place of God, The Good Place's Michael is an officious heavenly figure far down the hierarchy. In place of all-powerful wrath, he's quirky and unpredictable. He has goals and failures that humanize him, blurring our division between divinity and human frailty.

3. Very, very flawed humans

Any worthwhile show about the afterlife stars terrible people. From Eleanor's unabashed disregard for everyone other than herself in The Good Place to Oscar, the milquetoast husband in Forever, the dead are patently unlikeable. And sure, their overt flaws are too heavy-handed to not foreshadow the characters' transformations, but their unpleasantness makes them immediately relatable.


Miracle Workers takes this a step further by introducing angels as sheltered, boring bureaucrats whose idea of fun is grabbing a hamburger with co-workers after hours. But Craig doesn't even have that. His utter lack of social skills or charisma matches God's defeatism, which primes the show to address the question, "What's the point?"


4. Second chances

Kristen Bell's brashness and Fred Armisen's dreadful deadpan bring home the point of these types of shows: even the most ridiculous, unlikeable people can get a second chance. Likewise, the first episode of Russian Doll is quick to establish Nadia's crass humor and self-destructive habits, as it opens with her reflections on her 36th birthday, questioning if she deserves to still be alive. "I smoke two packs a day," she says. "I have the internal organs of a man twice my age." But trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth, she finds one perk about the afterlife is that you no longer worry about trying to survive. Suddenly, she has nothing to complain about; self-destruction is boring when it's a foregone conclusion.


Who cares about a character trying to improve their lives when they're already dead? Instead, the stakes are about self-knowledge and self-improvement (to the best of these weirdos' limited abilities). Eleanor has to learn to be a good person. Maya Rudolph's character learns to tolerate Fred Armisen's. Craig, the angel, tries to impress his pretty new co-worker, and Nadia investigates why the fuck she can't stay dead. In each case, they rely on themselves as their only point of reference amidst chaos. They either have to eke out a place for themselves or escape their situation using nothing but their own bearings.

5. Friendship


Even if God's a no-show, you shouldn't be an asshole; you have friends to remind you of that. These characters aren't driven by righteousness or religious creed; rather, their relationships keep them motivated. In The Good Place, Eleanor and Chidi are each other's anchors, and together Oscar and June go searching for the upside of being dead in Forever. But not all primary relationships are romantic, as Russian Doll portrays through Alan and Nadia's bond over their bizarre predicaments. As Nadia finds, her emotional connections with others have the power to alter her day the most. Reliving the day over again lets her pay attention to her individual relationships and gives her a second chance to be a friend rather than just a smart-ass.

Our current fascination with life after death isn't rooted in religiosity nor atheism. When we want to contemplate morality and how difficult it is for 7.5 billion people to coexist without murdering each other, that's what TV is for. Our favorite dead people grapple with nihilism, boredom, and Steve Buscemi in a bathrobe as they attempt to save the afterlife from mirroring the flaws of this world.

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

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