Nobody knows what the afterlife looks like, but that’s never stopped a good writer from making something up. The Dantes of today are television showrunners who are concerned less with layers of hell than the complicated world of 21st-century morality.
Religious texts, including Jewish ones, tend to rely on the basic premise that our actions in this world determine our fates in the next. But these new writers are bucking the trend. What happens, they ask, if we continue to live and grow as people in olam ha-ba? If good and evil exist on earth, do these concepts also exist in whatever heaven-like place we might wind up? And if they do, what should we do about it?
These questions are central to two recent TV shows that are worth watching: The Good Place on NBC (and streamable on Netflix), which is currently running through its final season, and Forever, an Amazon Prime original, which was cancelled after its lone season last year.
A quick warning: I’m going to be spoiling both these shows pretty hard.
Neither is an especially Jewish show, but nor are they Christian; both agnostically analyze how we navigate morality in an increasingly complicated modern world and what that means for our lives to come. Each show draws similar conclusions, despite reaching them in totally different ways.
In The Good Place, four characters wake up in what they’re told is heaven, even though none of them belong there. It turns out that they’re actually in a special hell designed specifically to torture them. (Picture No Exit, but written by the guy who created Parks and Recreation.)
Rather than fall victim to their circumstances, they surprise their demon tormentors by continuing to grow and transform into better people – which should, theoretically, eventually qualify them for entry into the real heaven. Therein lies the show’s central argument: if individuals continue to improve ad infinitum, why should death be the demarcation line of your soul? Entry into heaven should be a moving target, not a one-time deal.
If The Good Place is the sunny sitcom version of No Exit, Forever is the dreary 21st-century suburban version. Created by Alan Yang (who previously ran Master of None with Aziz Ansari), the show is a minimalist two-hander starring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph in a quietly mortifying bit of Sartrean existentialism: what if, in the afterlife, you’re trapped with your just-fine husband in a peaceful, quiet suburb? What if, every day, your husband attempts a daily crossword while you craft pottery? In short: what if the afterlife is just as much a meaningless waste of time as your earthly life?
The Forever universe is the antithesis of The Good Place, where a scrappy band of dead souls work together despite their differences to affect change in themselves and others. Instead, Forever posits a world of abject mediocrity, where nothing can ever change, for better or worse.
But despite their aesthetic differences, both shows sketch a roadmap to a worthwhile life. Both flatly deny determinism, arguing that people, no matter how lost they feel, can always improve and find meaning in their lives – if they want to.
Optimism is obviously inherent to the plot of The Good Place, whose central conceit is a relatively simple one: humans are innately good. In Forever, Maya Rudolph’s character suffers a midlife (mid-death?) crisis, discovering a lush oceanside town beyond the mountains. Whether it’s better or worse than her suburban purgatory is beside the point: it’s something different, an option to give her hope.
Most importantly, in neither show is death a dead end. Jewish theologians might agree with that. We don’t just do good deeds to end up in heaven, because heaven isn’t the finish line. We do good deeds, and live fulfilling lives, because we actively choose to – regardless of what’s waiting for us on the other side.