Why is comedy TV obsessed with the afterlife?

Two seated figures in the clouds symbolizing the afterlife are pictured. (Isabella Montoya / The Tufts Daily)

For the longest time, comedy television was the way to take a load off. Americans would come home from work tired and turn on the television to hang out with their friends on the screen. With the innovation of the workplace comedy, viewers got to feel included as they watched a group go through their ups and downs. In turn, the show did not care about the actual work, just the place and the people.

However, the current climate is quite different. The way we consume media and comedy television has changed so much.

“Miracle Workers” (2019–) on TBS feels like a proper representation of this history and change. The show centers around two angels in heaven, played by Daniel Radcliffe and Geraldine Viswanathan, who have two weeks to save Earth before God, played by Steve Buscemi, destroys it.

While the show seems more philosophical than the usual sitcom, it does contain a lot of the typical tropes and a sort of meta-awareness of those tropes. The set of the show constantly reminds viewers of its depiction of heaven as a workplace. Pictured as “Heaven Inc,” there are background and establishing shots that show heaven to be both a factory and an office space where people have specific jobs.

As the plot develops, it becomes clear that the creators of “Miracle Workers” understand that sitcoms always hit similar notes. While speaking about a heterosexual couple in love, Viswanathan’s character rants about the relationship. With her co-star and colleague Daniel Radcliffe in focus during the speech, the show is openly using the relationship of the characters on Earth as a metaphor for the classic will-they-won’t-they storyline told over and over again in comedy television, and more specifically addressing the already noticeable romantic tension between the two main characters.

The opening scene of “Miracle Workers” shows God watching local cable news reports to show the catastrophic state of the world, when suddenly a news story shows a person thanking God for their good fortune. God re-watches the clip over and over to hear his praise, only to hear the story end with the fact that the person is now dead. In a moment, “Miracle Workers” captures the overwhelming sense of dread in the world and the sociopathic desire of those in power to only want to hear compliments. Neither of those things feels out of touch.

“Miracle Workers” is quite good television, especially given the fact that it works within the confines of sitcom television as it airs on TBS, rather than having more flexibility, as it would if shown on a streaming platform. More importantly, it feels like its existence is the result of a growing trend in comedy TV.

Over the last year there have been three new shows, all mostly leaning towards comedy and centering around the afterlife. Amazon released the Alan Yang-led show “Forever” (2018) last fall, which focuses on a married couple together in the afterlife, only a couple weeks ago Netflix dropped “Russian Doll” (2019), which tells the story of a woman living a groundhog-day-style life to try and deal with her past; and now we have “Miracle Workers” — not to mention NBC’s hit “The Good Place” (2016–). When it rains, it pours.

It might be a stretch to try and find a reason as to why all these shows are popping up at the same time, but there’s no doubt that they share similarities. The main theme recurring throughout all of them is the idea of actions and consequences. Each show talks about why people decide to do things in our modern time and the influence of those decisions on both the people that make them and the rest of the world. In a sense, these shows have examined morality in a time where viewers mimic the actions of figures they see in the world.

Comedies have long been known to be adaptive, both from production and narrative standpoints. As the industry has gone through multiple cycles of revolution over the past twenty years, comedy television has been able to fit the needs of the medium while also trying to stay culturally relevant through its plots. As dramas seem to dive further into prestige television, their themes may be relevant but the stories themselves are so well produced and so sharply focused that they feel completely removed from society and our everyday lives. Comedy has cleverly evolved to reflect a growing sense of fear and panic about the current state of American culture.


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