Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Ted Danson in The Good Place (Photo: NBC), Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis in Black Mirror (Photo: Netflix), and Justin Theroux in The Leftovers (Photo: Ben King/HBO). Graphic: Allison Corr

Heaven is a place onscreen: The afterlife is TV's most inspiring setting

Ted Danson in The Good Place (Photo: NBC), Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis in Black Mirror (Photo: Netflix), and Justin Theroux in The Leftovers (Photo: Ben King/HBO). Graphic: Allison Corr

Some of my favorite people on TV are dead. In certain cases, they were goners before I even met them: squashed by heavy objects, asphyxiated by their own stupidity, or murdered by unwitting hands. Characters frequently die on television; two of the biggest series of our time have made a sport of it, and a third is currently dangling the demise of a beloved character to keep football fans watching NBC after the Super Bowl. What was rarer until just a few years ago was the story that begins with life’s end—rarer still the story that takes place primarily in the hereafter.

Television storytellers are part of a vast continuum of people who’ve wondered about what happens to us after we die, though, for most of the medium’s history, the hereafter was brought down to Earth, in the form of otherworldly emissaries like Touched By An Angel’s Monica and Tess, or Lucifers crime-solving lord of hell. In Highway To Heaven, Michael Landon hung a halo on the type of noble drifter made popular by The Fugitive, Route 66, and The Incredible Hulk, while Carl Reiner foretold Fantasy Island as the wish-granting Mr. Angel in the one-and-done Good Heavens. The titular character of Angel was ironically named, but together with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, that show brewed up a shared universe of hellmouths and Powers That Be, where people bare their souls to a demon in a subterranean karaoke lounge and Buffy Summers once sang a sad little ditty about being yanked from eternal paradise.

But Buffy kept that higher plane offscreen—alluded to only in dialogue, perceived (at the time) as the ultimate relief of the hero’s vampire-staking, demon-slaughtering burden. Recently, series have been more inclined to show the afterlife, rather than tell us about it: On Adult Swim’s Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell, perdition is imagined as a literally and figuratively soul-sucking workplace where “associate demons” in unflattering corporate uniforms recruit for the ranks of the damned. Belief in heaven and hell among Gallup poll respondents is on the decline, but TV’s belief in life after death has never been stronger, or more rewarding. Three of the past year’s best programs—The Good Place (which wraps its second tonight on NBC), The Leftovers, and Twin Peaks: The Return—each presented distinct, complex visions of the afterlife. 2017 also saw Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” win the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie, nearly a year after the joyful noise of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” gave the dystopian anthology its first happy ending. And TBS is currently prepping the holy inverse of Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell: Miracle Workers, starring Steve Buscemi as a vengeful god, Daniel Radcliffe as an angel trying to convince his boss of humanity’s worth, and hailing from Man Seeking Woman creator Simon Rich, whose previous series envisioned hell as a destination wedding.

These shows are all reflections of contemporary appetites and anxieties: The thought that death is not a curtain call is a comfort to nerves jangled by mass shootings, renewed nuclear brinkmanship, or worldwide authoritarian threats to democracy. They couldn’t have existed any earlier—if not for lack of a mass audience or space on the TV dial (remember: Twin Peaks had already died once before), then for budgets and technology too limited to realize their fantastical visuals, or for the public outcry their irreverent premises were bound to provoke. With few exceptions, they’re divorced from any one set of religious or philosophical principles. Yet the themes and the concepts they explore are the timeless stuff of everlasting life: Comfort for the afflicted, reward for the virtuous, punishment for the wicked, clear delineation between good and evil, the mysteries of existence. And, every once in a while, there’s a familiar pop song, a joke about frozen yogurt, or a visual goof involving an oil portrait.

Mackenzie Davis (left) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “San Junipero” (Photo: David Dettmann/Netflix)
Mackenzie Davis (left) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “San Junipero” (Photo: David Dettmann/Netflix)

None of these shows have a particularly sunny outlook, but it still tickles that Black Mirror would arrive at the least gloomy forecast for the human soul. Prior to “San Junipero,” creator Charlie Brooker toyed around with tech-enabled life after death in “Be Right Back,” but that’s a love story focusing more on the people left behind. “San Junipero” hinges on the question of moving on: Will Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) accept eternal 1980s youth and a newfound love with Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) in a digitally simulated afterlife, knowing that her husband didn’t upload his consciousness to the system (and her daughter didn’t have the chance)?

It’s an important crack in the façade of this pleasuredome where you can dance eternity away to Welcome To The Pleasuredome: “San Junipero” still has enough Black Mirror DNA to dig around in the unforeseen consequences of this wish-fulfillment scenario. A week after she first sleeps with Kelly, Yorkie treks to the outskirts of town in an attempt to reconnect, happening upon an industrial club called the Quagmire. Inside, she discovers the permanent residents of San Junipero who’ve soured on the simulation’s pain-free existence, “trying anything to feel something.” It’s the first hint of darkness to cut through the warm neon glow of the episode’s period setting, which begins to swiftly unravel and reveal its true nature from there.

“San Junipero” ends in a moment of bliss for its protagonists—particularly Yorkie, who was paralyzed in a car crash shortly after coming out to her religious parents—but I’ve never bought the epilogue as wholly optimistic. Something sinister sneaks in through that footage of robot arms skittering between rows and rows of twinkling servers. It’s cold and sterile; the spirit rendered into information in an environment devoid of the human and the divine. And I worry for Kelly and Yorkie. Are they protected from power outages and surges? Have they been backed up? In the event of data corruption, will one be stranded without the other?

I wonder if the writers of The X-Files felt the same way while preparing “This,” the recent 11th-season episode in which Richard Langly contacts his old pals Mulder and Scully from beyond the grave. The late Lone Gunman is trapped in a simulation made to look like a bespoke heaven, where he and other departed thinkers—Steve Jobs, Marvin Minsky, Michael Crichton—are having their digitized consciousnesses exploited for the gain of the world elite. “The stars are fake, the sunlight has no warmth,” Langly says, his words recalling the Quagmire and the ever-present moon of “San Junipero.”

Screenshot: The Good Place
Screenshot: The Good Place

Or maybe I’ve just been conditioned by Black Mirror to see the downsides in things—even heaven. Could be The Good Place’s fault, too: By the time “San Junipero” was uploaded to Netflix, the signs of faulty wiring in Neighborhood 12358W were piling high. But even after the first-season finale opened a trapdoor beneath the protagonists and subjected them to a Groundhog Day battery of self-torture reboots, The Good Place’s afterlife retained an essential allure: the notion that all-seeing, all-knowing entities are watching over humanity, and they actually care about what we do while we’re alive.

In fact, they might care too much, and about the wrong things. From their introduction in The Good Place’s pilot, the points awarded to humans for benevolent acts and deducted for wrongdoing seem like an arbitrary and incomplete way of representing a life. This is the afterlife as dreamed up by accountants and stats geeks: The folks down at Bad Place HQ dress like they’re extras from The Apartment, and the guy who came up with the whole crazy concept is the same one who peppered Parks And Recreation with sabermetrics Easter eggs. The conflict at the heart of the show isn’t that far off from long-running baseball debates of the value of numbers versus “the intangibles”: The afterlife bureaucracy puts all its faith in the score, while Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) make the case that their fates shouldn’t be determined by actions alone.

The show follows a redemption arc, and it’s put a new spin on that old TV standby by applying it to people who blew their chance to change while they were alive. It’s extended this belief in transformation and atonement to one character who’s never been alive or dead, and, at one point, seemed like he deserved a clean slate least of all: Bad Place minion Michael, who’s broken protocol so many times, hid so much from his bosses, done so much to help the humans who were once under his supervision, and just plain fucked up so many times that he’s more than earned his honorary human status. He’s a case of The Good and Bad Places’ rules being broken from the inside, of the immortal watchers being just as fallible as the mortals they watch.

Of course, those of us who watch The Good Place still haven’t actually seen The Good Place, an under-appreciated act of misdirection that also serves to make the show’s world feel all the more infinite. It’s been stated and restated that there’s so much about The Good Place’s great beyond that even a great mind like Chidi’s would have trouble comprehending—or horrors so petrifying, they’d never be forgotten. This is territory Twin Peaks staked out during its initial run, and continued to mine during its 18-episode revival, which managed to layer dimension upon dimension on the series’ previously established afterlife realms, the Black and White Lodges. It’s always been readily apparent that the Black Lodge is hell—because where else would Special Agent Dale Cooper’s favorite beverage turn to scorched motor oil—but Mark Frost’s twin interests in Tibetan mysticism and Western occultism and David Lynch’s command of dream imagery (and disinterest in interpreting said imagery) added strange, new wrinkles to the mythology in Twin Peaks: The Return. When the most tangible clues are delivered amid the disorientation of a nuclear weapons test, you’re all but guaranteed another 25 years of blog posts, wiki entries, and scholarly articles decoding the significance of the purple sea, the evolution of the arm, and “This is the water and this is the well.”

It was a special kind of joy to watch all of this unfolding alongside the conclusion of a show that wore Twin Peaks’ influence so proudly on its sleeve: Shortly after Dale Cooper returned to the land of the living to take the place of his doppelgänger Dougie Jones, The Leftovers’ Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) died for the third time and met his own duplicate. The Leftovers begins from the blueprint of Tom Perrotta’s novel about the fallout from a rapture-like event, and where that 9/11 allegory ends with zero explanation for how millions of people could vanish without a trace—or why those millions of people, or where they went—the series spent its second and third seasons reveling in life’s mysteries and taking the refusal for easy answers to daffy new heights. And there were none daffier or higher than the three episodes that follow Kevin into the afterlife, where he carries out an assassination, sings a randomly assigned karaoke song, and carries out the Fisher protocol (on himself) in order to start a nuclear war.

It’s utterly baffling TV, and despite all the bloodshed and off-key Simon & Garfunkel, it’s also uncommonly beautiful. Theroux, playing a character who’s lived through one reality-shattering event after another, fully commits to Kevin’s fear and bewilderment—in part because he was genuinely afraid and bewildered by what the show’s writers had handed him. With echoes of The SopranosKevin Finnerty interlude, “International Assassin” and “The Most Powerful Man In The World (And His Identical Twin Brother)” put Kevin at the center of metaphysical mini-movies set in a funhouse-mirror reflection of the world he knows. His path crosses with those of other characters who’ve died over the course of the series, most affectingly his nemesis and devil-on-the-shoulder, cult leader Patti Levin (Ann Dowd). The physically and emotionally violent conclusion of the arc gets a poignancy booster from a needle drop whose title could serve as an epigram for The Leftovers as a whole: “God Only Knows.”

Not that the show would ever claim this as the work of any one deity or another. The mysterious David Burton (Bill Camp) is the voice in Kevin’s ear guiding him through “The Most Powerful Man In The World,” but just as the show seems to confirm his divinity, it dodges: “God,” it seems, is just a pick-up line. The most powerful thing that The Leftovers can do is let its characters and its audience find the answers they need. It’s how the concept of the afterlife threads itself through the centuries, through multiple world religions, through an array of contemporary stories seeking to isolate the signal from all of the noise of life. In the end, which is also the beginning, they are loved, they are redeemed, they are cutting foreign objects out of their identical twin brothers in order to destroy their own personal hell. Or maybe it was heaven. Either way, Kevin Garvey’s never going back there. The next time he dies, he has as much clue about what comes next as any of us do.

Managing editor, The A.V. Club

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