Television takes on death and magical thinking

In a medium that exploits death to boost ratings, three series creatively explore its impact on how we live

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 17, 2018 3:30PM (EST)

"One Day At A Time;" "This Is Us;" "The Good Place" (Netflix/NBC)
"One Day At A Time;" "This Is Us;" "The Good Place" (Netflix/NBC)

Spoiler Alert: The following article discusses plot specifics of NBC’s series “This Is Us” and “The Good Place,” as well as Netflix’s “One Day at a Time.” If you haven't watched these series and don't want spoilers, stop reading now.

It’s never a good time to think about death, especially now. And yet, prior to NBC’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Olympics, one death became the event of the season. Jack’s demise on “This Is Us” was revealed in the episode that followed NBC’s Super Bowl telecast, and was viewed by nearly 27 million viewers. That number swelled to 32.7 million three days after the initial telecast, once delayed viewing was factored in.

People really wanted to witness that big exit even though it is established that the adult Pearsons live in a world without the father seen raising them in flashbacks. That overnight popularity also speaks to a giddy tool television has used and too often abused over the years, which is the big character death.

Jack’s circumstances are different than most, given that we already knew he’s dead. But the mass catharsis offered by making an event of it is nothing new. “Tonight: Somebody Dies!” is such a promotional cliché that most TV writers spring it on the audience as a shock. But some series embrace the long tease, as “The Walking Dead” ghoulishly did over a summer that teased the execution of a major character (which ended up being two).

Tuesday’s “This Is Us” didn’t demonstrate a post-Super Bowl ratings bump. Nevertheless, it achieved something many series that play with death fall short of doing. In “The Car,” the family automobile is used to highlight the space left by Jack’s demise, portraying how each member of the family gingerly deals with that void. The widowed Rebecca (Mandy Moore) recalls the day they bought the car and slides over into her role as the sole driver. Teenagers Randall (Niles Fitch) and Kevin (Logan Shroyer) remember rivalrous clashes in the backseat. In the meantime, the adolescent Kate (Hannah Zeile) sits in the passenger side and stares at the empty spot where her dad once sat and steered the car, guiding her as well.

Death happens in all kinds of shows — soaps, crime procedurals, legal dramas, you name it. Conscientious writers take a beat to acknowledge a character’s loss, but even then the typical course is to move the story along. “This Is Us” is built to bring attention to Jack’s continued presence, via flashback and memory, and the toll his absence takes on those left behind.

Just as interesting, however, are two other confrontations with the Reaper that speak less to mourning than to life — more than this, they speak to how we live.

“The Good Place” fits this in a tricky fashion since the conceit of the series is that four of the principal characters, including Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), are already dead. The fifth, a cosmic being named Michael (Ted Danson) is the architect of their afterlife, believed at first to be their benefactor but, in an end-of-first-season twist, revealed to be their eternal tormenter.

The recently ended season 2 presented yet another twist as Michael, claiming to be reformed, made the case to the afterlife’s judge Gen (Maya Rudolph) that because of the fact that Eleanor, her soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and their allies Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto) made each other better people after they died, the universal system of judgment was flawed.

To test this, Gen and Michael took the death of the four friends off the table. Or it could very well be that they appeared to; part of what keeps “The Good Place” viewers guessing is the notion that nothing we see can truly be trusted and that at any time Michael can simply wipe the slate clean and start over.

But this act might also be interpreted as a manifestation of one element of what Joan Didion described as the sort of “magical thinking” the living engage in as they come to terms with the loss of a loved one. What if there’s a chance that the dead can come back and pick up where they left off? In Eleanor’s case, the only perspective of the four seen in the finale, the magic is a little different in that the death that sealed her eternal fate never happened. She’s returned to the place of her demise and mysteriously saved, but she also reverts to her former selfish, crude, exploitative self.

The test, as Michael sees is, is to find out whether she and the others have the capability of living better lives and becoming better people without knowing that the universe is watching. Coming close to death in the real world can make us face our own mortality and assess how well we’re living. By moving the finish line for these characters, series creator Michael Schur and his writing team do more than change the terms of the narrative for the show’s third season. They change the show’s hidden agenda from an exploration of moral philosophy to an experiment seeking to transform our judgments of good and bad — and medium, someplace in between — from the realm of the absolute into a foggier place, where humans' potential to become better is explored for reasons other than determining where our souls fit in the afterlife.

Funny thing, that concept of life beyond existence. On television paradise and damnation have been interpreted in countless ways, and so have portrayals of places in between. Sometimes, though, a series captures the truth, in astonishing ways, of that warning about living every moment as if it were the last.

The second season ender of “One Day at a Time” hangs on that notion as it applies to the people the departed leaves behind, and specifically, how dangerous it is to leave any fight unresolved. Single mother Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado) confronts such a scenario after a spat with her mother Lydia (Rita Moreno); the next morning, Penelope discovers Lydia unconscious on the floor.

In the season finale, “Not Yet,” Lydia lies in a medically induced coma after a surgery and each member of the family visits, one by one, revealing their true feelings about her. The presumption until the final moments is that Lydia is not going to make it. The priest arrives to give her the Catholic sacrament of last rites, and instead of opting for easy and affectionate sentiment, Penelope instead tells her comatose mother something she would never say to her if she were awake.

And in that moment “One Day at a Time” dances with a difficult truth about that space between loss and uncertainty where regret often lives and can come unstuck, and where the shadow of finality has a way of loosening secrets. The entire episode is a tearjerker, and co-showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce earn every moment of weeping. They do that by placing us in the strange, lovely and terrible space of the vigil, of lingering and not knowing.

In that respect “This Is Us,” “The Good Place” and “One Day at a Time” share that common take of death as an unexpected visitor we can never prepare for, one that sculpts our fates and futures in a variety of ways. These are episodes that inspire us to contemplate how we’re living after the credits roll and we hit the off button on our remotes. And one hopes they serve as examples to future writers that it is possible to use this most tragic of plot devices to affirm and uplift as opposed to merely goosing the ratings.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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