Why we see ghosts in our TV machines may be a sign of the times

It was inevitable that the success of "Ghosts" would breed imitators. But why are phantoms this moment's monster?

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 10, 2023 12:01PM (EST)

Danielle Pinnock as Alberta, Richie Moriarty as Pete, Rose McIver as Samantha, Roman Zaragoza as Sasappis and Sheila Carrasco as Flower in "Ghosts" (Bertrand Calmeau/CBS)
Danielle Pinnock as Alberta, Richie Moriarty as Pete, Rose McIver as Samantha, Roman Zaragoza as Sasappis and Sheila Carrasco as Flower in "Ghosts" (Bertrand Calmeau/CBS)

Esther and Lenny Lefkowitz spent more than two decades without having given their son Trevor (Asher Grodman) a proper burial. To be fair, that's partly Trevor's fault for placing his faith in irresponsible friends. When a weekend of drug-fueled partying proved too be too much for his ticker to handle, his pals dumped his body instead of owning up to their actions. As "Ghosts" viewers know, the Wall Street bro's remains have been lost somewhere on the grounds of what is now Woodstone Bed & Breakfast since the year 2000.

When its newest caretakers Sam (Rose McIver) and her husband Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar) discover them – in the most unfortunate way for their business, but still! – the couple offers Trevor's parents (played by Laraine Newman and Chip Zein) some peace by hosting their son's memorial. But Trevor is in no mood to rest. Instead, he makes it his mission to ensure Mom and Dad's stay is as entertaining as possible – for them, for him, for his phantasmic roommates, and most importantly, for us.

GhostsChip Zein as Lenny, Laraine Newman as Esther, and Asher Grodman as Trevor in "Ghosts" (Bertrand Calmeau/CBS)

On "Ghosts" the dead substantially outnumber the living. They hang around everywhere Sam and Jay go, except only she can see them, thanks to her brief trip to the Great Beyond by way of electrocution. None are threatening, creepy or forlorn. Quite the opposite: they're carefree, opinionated and comforting. In their version of limbo, spirits watch over the still-breathing with fascination, revulsion and mild judgment mainly because there isn't much else for them to do. Since nothing can hurt them anymore, everything about the world is fascinating. They're also past caring about such vanities as clothing changes or partial nudity. Trevor passes his remaining time tethered to Earth sans trousers.

A few years ago "Ghosts" might have been viewed as too cute for the room. Zombies ruled pop culture, a popularity occasionally encroached upon by the odd vampire or demon. Those monsters represent the hideousness of the human soul. Apparitions signify longing, unresolved business and things left unsaid.

That's one way of looking at the "boo" crowd. "Ghosts" interprets the spectral state more lightly, making the space between life and whatever comes afterward embarrassing and occasionally rowdy but ultimately bearable.

It was only a matter of time before TV's spirit infestation spread beyond one network's prime-time lineup.

"Ghosts" is one of the most popular sitcoms on television, and has already been picked up for a third season. Success breeds imitation in TV, especially when originality is at an all-time low. (To be fair, the CBS version of "Ghosts" is a remake of a BBC One series that premiered in 2019.) It was only a matter of time before TV's spirit infestation spread beyond one network's prime-time lineup. This week ABC made its necromantic pitch with "Not Dead Yet," which casts the irrepressibly charismatic Gina Rodriguez ("Jane the Virgin") as Nell, a young woman who returns to the Los Angeles newspaper where she once worked as its obituary writer.

Her new job comes with an unforeseen extra burden: she can see, hear and speak to the spirits of the subjects she's assigned to write about. This drives her up the wall, but it also brings a new friend into her life, Cricket (Angela Gibbs), the bereaved of the first person she memorializes.

Not Dead YetMartin Mull and Gina Rodriguez in "Not Dead Yet" (ABC/Temma Hankin)

"Not Dead Yet" has an entirely different feel and execution from "Ghosts," although Nell and "Ghosts" B&B host Sam share a common mandate to bridge the worlds of the living and the deceased, carrying messages to people who may not have appreciated the deceased enough while they were alive. Each accidental medium also absorbs the lessons their spirit visitors provide, if unwillingly at times, as Nell must when she's temporarily haunted by her high school bully, who turns out to have been far more popular than she is.

It'll be a few weeks before we know whether "Not Dead Yet" will remain above ground. But midway through its second season, "Ghosts" regularly competes with fellow CBS comedy "Young Sheldon" for the top-rated comedy crown. Plainly something about it is resonating with viewers besides the sharp writing and the cast's stellar chemistry.

Comedy lives or dies in the timing, whether we're talking about a joke's delivery or the audience's mood. We'll never know if this series would have been a hit if it had been introduced in a different season. But the fact that "Ghosts" aired its first episode in October 2021, when the end of the pandemic seemed not only possible but palpable, may have something to do with its success.

Phantoms may be in this season, but not all ghost stories are alike.

When viewers first met the residents of Woodstone, they were absorbing the news that 2021 surpassed 2020 in COVID-related deaths in the United States. On the same day that "Ghosts" premiered, the death toll in the United States was just shy of 706,000. Vaccines were widely available but millions were and are hesitant to get one.

The other unseen force more powerful than this skepticism was (and is) fatigue.

People were simply tired of isolating and masking, and not fully living as they did before the pandemic. And we may be underestimating how much of that burnout was the result of grieving or trying to soldier on while grappling with loss on a previously unimaginable scale.

The pandemic robbed hundreds of thousands of people of the ability to properly mourn family and friends. Comedies that depict death more gently, or as souls who remain nearby along with their memories, libidos and desire, might be a solace.

Thus, phantoms are in season . . . although not all ghost stories are alike. In "Shrinking" Jason Segel's widower sees his lost wife from time to time, but they're outlines of memories, not true apparitions. Paramount's upcoming teen thriller "School Spirits" stars Peyton List as a newly departed high school student who watches from the other side of the veil as her friends mourn her and possibly figure out who killed her.

School SpiritsXavier Baxter (Spencer McPherson), Maddie Nears (Peyton List), Rhonda (Sarah Yarkin), Claire Zolinski (Rainbow Wedell), Wally Clark (Milo Manheim), Charley (Nick Pugliese), Simon Elroy (Kristian Flores) and Nicole Herrera (Kiara Pichardo) in "School Spirits" (Ed Araquel/Paramount+)

These teen spirits haunt their school in the same way Woodstone's specters are bound to its building and the land around it. Since school wasn't fun for everyone, many of them are racked with angst. Think of it less like "Breakfast Club" and more akin to, say, "Repast Recess."

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In Freeform's "The Watchful Eye," a grifter takes a position as a nanny for a rich family that resides in a grand old apartment building that may require an exorcism. That shows thrills largely rely on schemes conjured up by the living; the dead woman might be real or figment of the guilty party's imagination.

Even so, this choice of supernatural horror is telling and, in the way of all Freeform series, extremely fashionable. What's missing, besides the punchlines, is a focus on magical thinking and the unintentional comedy that actual mourning yields; even in the worst throes of it, the threat of laughter at inappropriate moments hums in the background. This is a natural part of your brain wrapping itself around the reality that your loved one will never be in the same room with you again. As far as we know.

Neither "Ghosts" nor "Not Dead Yet" take much of the fear out of dying; that would be asking the impossible of any sitcom. But at the very least, they allow for the possibility that the people we lost may not be entirely gone, reminding us to make the best out of our lives at all times, if only to entertain whatever's haunting you.

By Melanie McFarland

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

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Abc Cbs Commentary Freeform Ghosts Not Dead Yet School Spirits The Watchful Eye Tv