Point At Issue: How Television is Seeking To Answer Life's Eternal Questions

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The world is in a transition at the moment. The political landscape has completely changed. Here in the United States, there is a shift towards the extremes in both the Republicans and the Democrats. The right and left are both in the extremes. The internet and social media have not made matters easy. No matter how you feel about any issue, there are extreme opinions that you have to contend with. The way of life has had a paradigm shift. Most people don’t know what’s in the future. Everyone is on the edge. 

This seems to have prompted a collective inquiry. An inquiry into answers on existential questions. What are the eternal question? To some, it is about happiness. What does it mean to be happy? To others, it may be about what their purpose in life is. All of these people, though, have life itself to contend with. Also, maybe a life after death? Is there a life after death? Some philosophers and saints might ponder over these questions, and search for answers in their lives, or the lives of people in the past. Most lesser mortals, though, look for easy answers. Their place of inquiry often is the TV. And TV seems to have answered the call.

Viewers interested in existential questions have more options than ever. Especially for people who like their information in comedic doses. Created by one of the key writers on the show The Office, Michael Schur, The Good Place centers around Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a recently deceased young woman who wakes up in “The Good Place”, a heaven-like utopia designed by Michael (Ted Danson), in exchange for having lived a righteous life. Within the first episode itself, we are shown that it’s an error: Eleanor has lived a less-than-righteous life. As the series progresses, Eleanor is determined to stay in “The Good Place,” and she enlists the help of her friend Chidi (William Jackson Harper) to do so. 

Eleanor’s struggles to become a better person bring ethics to the fore, and each episode deals with different ethical questions. The show makes several philosophical inquiries into what makes a person good. And that, in turn, has produced one of the most apt shows for this current generation. Why? Because, as Pamela Hieronymi, Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University, says, “It’s amazing to me how moralized and moralistic we seem to be,” she said, “especially right now. It’s just a cultural blamefest.” Hieronymi is also the consulting philosopher on The Good Place.

The Good Place’s success has only led to a domino effect of sorts. If The Good Place explores each individual in the afterlife, Forever explores the dynamics of relationships in similar settings. Through the evolution of the relationship between an employee at a timeshare company, June (Maya Rudolph) and a dentist, Oscar (Fred Armisen), the show seeks to answer the question of “what the purpose of everything is.”

Offering a different take on morality and life is Russian Doll. What if life itself didn’t end, until you rectified errors you made, confronted the traumas you carried? Through a Groundhog Day­-style premise, Russian Doll narrates a story about Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) who dies and wakes up in the middle of her 36th birthday again and again and again. She sets out on a quest to find why this keeps happening to her, but it is only in the fourth episode of the 8-episode season that she meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), who is going through the same loop as her. The series leads the characters to an examination of some of the choices that they’ve made through their lives, and how they can come to terms with it.

Joining the fray of these existential comedies is Miracle Workers, the limited series that airs on TBS. Although the premises of most of the series mentioned above is dark and a little cynical, Miracle Workers takes it a step further. Based on the novel What in God’s Name by creator Simon Rich, the series follows Craig (Daniel Radcliffe), a low-level angel responsible for answering prayers, and Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan), a recent transfer from the Department of Dirt, and their quest to save earth from God (Steve Buscemi). Their challenge: to achieve the impossible miracle of getting two socially awkward people to fall in love.

While the other comedies suggest that we still have a choice, the premise of Miracle Workers seems to suggest that the power isn’t really in our hands. For instance, in a scene in the first episode, when Eliza goofs up, and runs into God’s office and asks for his help, God says, “I don’t want to sound cynical, but what’s the point?” That dialogue might have some clues about what all the existential comedies might be trying to answer. “What is the point?” 

At any given point in time, society dictates what kind of material it wants to watch. In the past, the onus of talking about topics that may not necessarily lend itself to light moments might have been on films. Right now, with all the streaming services at our disposal, TV has gained some liberty to talk about complex issues like life, death and the afterlife, if at all it exists. Also, with the world moving towards the extremes, it is imperative to have an outlet to discuss serious questions. Comedies have served as the perfect canvases for creators and viewers alike to ponder over important questions. And everyone seems to be having a whole lot of fun while they’re at it.