'Russian Doll,' 'The Good Place,' 'Miracle Workers' & The Appeal Of The Existential Comedy
"You and me got bigger fish to fry," Natasha Lyonne’s character Nadia says sardonically to her new friend Alan midway through Netflix's high-concept existential romp Russian Doll. "Life-and-death stuff."
It's a funny and almost touching comment, considering Nadia is telling her friend that there are issues more pressing and vital to address than getting petty revenge on his girlfriend's lover. But she also means it quite literally: Nadia and Alan are stuck in a time loop, re-living the same night and dying in increasingly absurd and unexpected ways, leaving them to wonder why this is happening, and how they can stop it. It's a confounding predicament that forces them both to examine their choices, their trauma, and how they're connected. In other words, heavy, explicitly life-and-death stuff.
Lately, serialized comedies seem to be repeating Nadia's refrain right along with her. Counting Russian Doll's bizarre purgatorial version of winter in New York City, there are now four half-hour comedies set in the afterlife currently on our screens: NBC's The Good Place, an accessible and deceptively smart interrogation of what it means to be a good person; Amazon’s Forever, an examination of the potentially eternal responsibility of relationships; and TBS’s Miracle Workers, a heaven-set satire of office life in which Steve Buscemi plays a God so petty and incompetent, he threatens to blow up Earth and start all over again.
To be clear, it's far from the first time pop culture has used the ultimate stakes of leaving this mortal world forever to introduce tension in storytelling. But the increasingly fractured TV landscape of the streaming era and a period of sociopolitical transition has allowed a new kind of show to rise from the ashes of Peak TV: One whose determination to make you laugh is matched only by its dedication to coupling that with honest contemplations of the meaning of life.
But what does it mean that we’re attracted to these kinds of shows, and why are they popping up now? Faced with these questions, it's only human to attempt to explain why we're drawn to entertainment that confronts the inexplicable.
Stories set in the afterlife or ones in which characters grapple with perceived divine intervention are nothing new — it's a concept that dates back to the Bible. But according to Dr. Elizabeth Yuko, a bioethicist and adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University who teaches a class on ethics in pop culture, it's rarer to see these existential issues be part of the fundamental fabric of a comedy.
"We expect to see these difficult ethical issues dealt with on shows like Grey’s Anatomy, or really any medical drama [or] procedural drama, because that’s where the drama comes from," Yuko tells Bustle. "But what we don’t expect is to see ethical and moral dilemmas and problems on comedies, especially on sitcoms."
It's much tougher to broach these big, esoteric ideas in a half-hour comedy, where lighthearted entertainment is a priority. And up until now, it hasn't really been done in this format. Though a crop of hour-long dramedies in the mid-2000s, including Dead Like Me, Eli Stone, Joan of Arcadia, Pushing Daisies, and Wonderfalls, touched on divine intervention and garnered cult followings, none of them ultimately escaped the grim reaper that is network cancellation: Not a single one lasted longer than two seasons.
But the advent of streaming services and social media has drastically changed the TV landscape in the years since. The sheer number of scripted shows on the air these days (there were a whopping 495 in 2018, according to an FX report) by nature means there are fewer viewers to go around for everyone, resulting in a lower bar for what constitutes good ratings; meanwhile, the proliferation of new platforms for content has allowed for more unconventional shows to get made in the first place. Couple that with the rise of social media, and "it suddenly feels like there’s a tribe of people who know and like these weird, interesting kinds of shows," says Charlotte Howell, an assistant professor of media studies at Boston University who specializes in depictions of spirituality and religion on television.
That tribe of people can easily be found joking about how we're actually living in the Bad Place, posting screenshots of particularly dark lines from The Good Place without context, or making a supercut of Russian Doll's Greta Lee saying, "Sweet birthday babyyyy!" Clearly, there's kinship among those who enjoy a good comedy about how we're all going to die. But the kinship between these shows is also in their structure and presentation. Whether they're ruminating on ethics and morality, family and forgiveness, marriage and relationships, or something else entirely, creators of these shows all use the premise of the afterlife as an effective setting or structure in which to impose their own specific worldview, narrative style, and tone.
"For some reason it’s just sort of in the ether that the right way to go after what each of those shows is going after is through a theme of death and rebirth, or being caught in a loop, or being rebooted," The Good Place creator Mike Schur tells Bustle. Though he sees why his show would be included among other so-called existential comedies, he points out that each show is trying to address a very different idea. "We’re just using the same big-picture themes to try and get at what we’re trying to get at," he says.
Tropes like the time loop and the reboot only help in that regard, as they're especially effective in drawing audiences in and practically daring them to consume the entire series in one setting, according to Jen Chaney, Vulture's TV critic who coined the term "existential comedy" in late 2018. "Some of the shows like this, they do have a little bit of a mystery-box thing where in addition to all the things they’re exploring, you’re like, 'Wait, what is going on here, and what is gonna happen next?'" Chaney tells Bustle.
The repetition aspect is also a helpful mechanism for highlighting those underlying, usually existential themes that are so difficult to wedge into a comedy. As the characters are forced to interrogate their choices in a controlled environment, be it the Good Place that's secretly the Bad Place or the same party night after night, the storyline itself becomes the constant. Suddenly, Howell says, we're forced to examine the world, the characters, and search for a deeper meaning "if the storyline itself isn’t the driver of meaning." And just like that, you've got characters alternating between cracking jokes about the dwindling quality of Season 8 of Friends while confronting the mystery of the purpose of their existence.
When The Good Place broadcasts an almost brutally lighthearted livestream on YouTube in which the sentient robot Janet blinks cheerfully into her void for five hours, it's hard not to think — if only for a moment — about how retreating into an empty void actually seems comforting as a way to escape from reality. Which brings us to the inevitable question: Why is television contemplating the purpose of our existence now?
Much has been written tying the cultural anxiety surrounding the Trump presidency to the rise and continued success of these shows. And yes, Howell notes that "television is always, at least in part, reacting to sociocultural changes," pointing out that the post-9/11 Bush era was when we saw the first crop of aforementioned existential dramedies like Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls. But it's still far too simplistic to pin this existential comedy trend on the current political climate.
Simon Rich, creator of Miracle Workers, based the show on his 2012 novel What In God's Name. He tells Bustle he started writing it during the Bush presidency and long before Trump's ascension, so any comparisons between Buscemi's volatile, incompetent, sweatpants-wearing God who can't work a microwave and our current president are unintentional. It seems his decision to create a bizarrely cynical vision of a bureaucratic heaven is more of a fascinating thought experiment, rather than the product of cultural anxiety related to the state of the world. "I've always been interested in the notion that if there is a God, he might be out of his depth," Rich says plainly, "because it would explain a lot."
Both Schur and Leslye Headland, co-creator of Russian Doll, suggest that they created their respective shows because, when given a wide latitude of creative freedom for their next project, they wanted to tell impactful stories they felt hadn't been told before. For Schur, that meant proving a high-concept sitcom with a positive message about making the world a better place could appeal to a wide audience on basic cable. "For me, the things that matter are human relationships and a general sense of empathy and kindness toward other people," he says emphatically, "and a ton of really silly jokes.”
For Headland, that meant "writing a show with a female protagonist that wasn’t about her struggling with her career, or a guy, or her romantic life," she tells Bustle. "Like, what if there was a woman whose main issue is an existential crisis, like a true ‘Do I exist?'"
While Schur politely shuts down the possibility that any ambient cultural anxiety contributed to the creation of his show, he does note that Russian Doll and Forever are both created by people he's worked with and knows well: Amy Poehler, who starred on his previous show Parks and Recreation and whom Schur calls one of his closest friends and collaborators, co-created Russian Doll; Forever co-creators Matt Hubbard and Alan Yang both worked on Parks and Recreation and Yang also wrote and directed on The Good Place. "It’s just as likely that [since] we’re people who know each other, we’re in the same kind of general mood or something," Schur suggests.
Headland points out that this isn't the first time her work has been dubbed part of a trend — her film Bachelorette was quickly lumped in with Bridesmaids in trendpieces heralding a new type of unruly woman in film. But while she suggests that sometimes so-called trends are simply the product of studios and executives realizing a certain genre or idea can actually be profitable, she does concede that the political climate might have influenced her decision to push herself to create the most original, meaningfully introspective work possible.
"What implications our behavior might have — existentially, spiritually, morally — that's coming more to the forefront for comedians now that we have someone who runs the country who’s making sh*tty jokes all the time," she says, laughing. "You kind of do want to start pushing your audience toward bigger and more intense questions. It's like, 'What about how we all die, and we're not sure what we’re going to do about it — what about that?'"
Whether it's the positive or negative point values assigned to every single action a person makes on earth in The Good Place, or the way Maya Rudolph's June makes a conscious decision to throw out the mundane, habitual routines of her married life upon entering the afterlife with her partner in Forever, the concept of free will and choice is integral to an existential comedy. Even other shows with a less explicitly existential bent like Westworld, Maniac, and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch all are to an extent preoccupied with agency, choice, and the ripple effects of our past, present, and future decisions. Yuko, the ethics professor, suggests that audiences respond to these shows consciously or subconsciously because they examine our decision-making processes in a time when what's deemed morally acceptable is rapidly shifting.
"For so long, [we lived in a] white, middle-class, male patriarchal society, and now with different social movements, between Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, I think people are really starting to question their own behavior and the way that they approach the world," she says. "They’re realizing that what we consider normal is actually systemic oppression in a lot of cases, and I think that’s causing a lot of people to look at their own actions as a person."
Of course, most of these shows probably weren't written explicitly with this in mind. But it's not hard to believe that a period of such rapid transition in American culture would be a time in which art that interrogates a character's choices would hit a nerve with many viewers, even if only subconsciously. And in a time when many people may feel powerless to affect social or political change, each of these shows seems to suggest that relishing the small things we actually do have control over is ultimately what will save us all.
"Everything else is completely hopeless and meaningless and doomed," Rich says, being as characteristically bleak as his show, "but you can ask somebody to dance with you, you can make a new friendship, you can join a team, you can do small things." Chaney agrees that while these stories may be resonating because of the uncertainty of the future, they're also imbued with an optimism we can only wish seeps into real life, too. After all, if an Arizona trashbag and a Nigerian ethics professor can, in one timeline at least, be soulmates instead of torment each other for eternity, perhaps there's hope for the rest of us. Consciously or subconsciously, Chaney says, people must be hungry for "that feeling of restoring faith in humanity."
You'd think that of all the people who might be inclined to suggest that we're just looking for a kernel of hope in these otherwise existentially bleak TV shows, the man who has made a career out of creating warm characters with positive outlooks on life would suggest as much. But when it comes to searching for meaning behind this trend, Schur's answer is the most puzzling.
"It's fun to muse on the effect a culture or political climate is having on TV shows and movies," he says. "But I think it's also just as likely that these are just ideas that pop into people's heads at any given time." Perhaps this is all a strange coincidence, a confluence of events and feelings and TV projects merging to create the perfect storm of randomness that seems to signal some larger meaning, but actually doesn't. But even if that's the case, we'll likely still keep looking for answers. That life-and-death stuff is just too compelling to shake.