If the conceit of post-history was that we have achieved a liberal capitalist paradise, the definitive burial of the future has been heralded in recent culture by an obsession with the afterlife. Put more bluntly, shows like The Good Place (2016–2019) and Russian Doll (2019–) (or books like Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), McKenzie Wark’s Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? (2019) or Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry’s ‘Zombie Manifesto’ (2008)) seem to suggest that the only future will be an afterlife.
This pessimistic conclusion is evident not only in the content of The Good Place and Russian Doll – where death is a premise – but it is also instilled in their form. Notorious grump Theodore Adorno, in his essay ‘How to Look at Television’ (1954), argued that ‘every spectator of a television mystery knows with absolute certainty how it is going to end.’ So-called mysteries, he believed, paradoxically delivered assurance to their viewers, week after suburban working week.
Sitcoms have the same inbuilt assurance, only it occurs at the beginning of each episode. No matter what hijinks ensue, the order of the world is reset each week for the characters and lines to brush broadly across without the risk of genuine change that might damage the often-ridiculous premise of the show (highly unlikely pairings, impossibly or inexplicably wealthy people, etc).
Television seems beset by a repetition compulsion. Its episodes – with notable exceptions – are structurally repetitive, and the industry as a whole constantly revives its ‘hits’. The Good Place and Russian Doll theatricalise this very compulsion. What is it about our apparent loss of a future that makes us obsess about the afterlife, death and, importantly, the moral and political condition of our lives?
In The Good Place, a group of strangers wake to find themselves in what they believe is heaven. Once they work out that, following Jean Paul Sartre’s cringeworthy line, ‘hell is other people’, they are assigned to unwittingly torture one another until their demon over-lords are compelled to reset their experiment and start over. In Russian Doll, Natasha Lyonne plays a woman who ‘keeps dying and coming back to life in a purgatorial loop.’
The psychotherapist and writer Adam Phillips wrote that ‘what no one ever dared think about the afterlife was that it might be exactly the same as this one.’ These shows not only dare to imagine such a likelihood, they aim to reckon with the moral consequences of this discovery. The Good Place’s setting is indistinguishable from a banally exclusive gated suburb, Hell is just a village in Norway. But, I would argue, they also point the way further towards our political condition of crisis, destruction, and melancholy. If we can look beyond their insipid moralism, and to their incipient politics, I think we can garner genuine insights into the turpitude of much modern life.
Problems of the personal apocalypse, or why I started off cynical:
1. The second chance. What the persistent ‘reset’ of the sitcom form entices us to believe is that each day is a new day, disburdened of history, open and available to experiment without consequence. This view is particularly dangerous in the context of catastrophic climate change. We are not about to planet hop. The premise of the repeatable afterlife can support a fantasy of life as a video game, as one critic writes of Russian Doll, ‘with its multiple resets offering up a world of possibilities.’ They even avoid the choose-your-own-adventure pitfall of needing to terminate. Daniel Drake argues that the show ‘makes hay out of the morbid possibilities of consequence-less death.’ All these second chances amount to, in the end, is a compulsion to repeat, which Adorno called ‘selfsameness’, which he thought tends to ‘make for automatised reactions and to weaken the forces of individual resistance.’
2. Moralism. Like self-help, moralism ignores social reality and insists that we should be happy and sociable regardless of the material conditions. Many TV critics posit this as the message of both shows: let’s just all get along. Critic after critic regurgitates this line as though it’s been fed to them by the promoters or network, summed up by Sulagna Misra in a double review: ‘we owe each other to take care of ourselves, so we can recognise our ability to help others.’ This analysis keeps these shows at the level of an ode to individual empowerment (even in the context of ‘helping others’ in that charitable self-righteous sense). Bim Adewunmi’s Buzzfeed piece is more reflective on this problem, concluding that ‘To be better, these shows tell us, we must turn to one another, over and over again.’
3. The culture of death. We should never lose sight, however, of the fact that this apparent moral self-improvement takes place in purgatory. Herbert Marcuse, Adorno’s arguably more radical Frankfurt School colleague, describes in his essay ‘The Affirmative Character of Culture’ (1937) how moral purity under capitalism could only be obtained in death. ‘For only death eliminates all of the external conditions that destroy permanent solidarity and in the struggle with which individuals wear themselves out.’ Val Plumwood, the Australian ecofeminist philosopher, also took up Western philosophy’s culture of death, with its insistence on purity and dualistic thinking rendering genuine environmentalism impossible and a true political reckoning unlikely.
4. Calculating paradise. The Good Place in particular is governed by a utilitarian logic, even though the characters explicitly wrestle with different moral theories in their effort to redeem themselves from damnation. What this means is, as Marcuse writes, that ‘Happiness is calculated at the outset with regard to its utility just as the chance of profit is weighed in relation to risk and cost.’ The Good Place’s heaven operates on a border control points system. Good deeds win you points, bad deeds lose them. All good deeds, in this logic, self-interestedly serve moral profit. It is no surprise that Marcuse deemed utilitarianism the moral philosophy of capitalism. And its virulently successful inheritors, the ‘most good you can do’ people, offer scientifically-coded philanthropic schemes designed to make you feel good and do nothing systematic in the meantime. As Amia Srinivasan writes, the potentially radical ‘moral indictment’ that we’re currently no good, ‘is transformed into an empowering investment opportunity.’ Dante Alighieri, in the dully theological Paradiso (Canto I, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation), was not immune to the suggestion that life was simply an investment so that at the end
thy ascent, if I rightly compute,
Ought no more surprise thee than to see
A stream rush down from mountain crest to foot…
5. Bureaucratic salvation. Again, The Good Place in particular fantasises that there are omnipotent beings, whether malevolent or benevolent, with us in mind. If they are malevolent, at least we can blame them for our ills, and we can imagine changing their other-worldly minds. If they are benevolent, then progress will resume after the interruption, as Miracle Workers impotently hopes. Such is the mindset of a certain form of head-in-the-sand progressive, whose response to discrimination is to shout, incredulously, ‘But it’s [insert year]!’ Neither time, nor the oddly empathetic beings of the afterlife are about to step in. History does not, as Walter Benjamin warned, ‘move with the current’, and this belief fosters mythic obedience. In Edgework (2006), Wendy Brown extends Benjamin’s critique of progressivism, arguing that
Progress reconciles and attaches its adherents to the inevitable (even fatalistic) and unwittingly normative account of political formations and events. The hopefulness that characterises a progressive view of history offers is both delusional and ultimately conservative, precluding a politics devoted to bring about a ‘state of emergency’ that can break with this present…
Emergency eternal recurrence:
The kind of emergency Benjamin had in mind was a revolutionary cessation of time. Couldn’t death be exactly that, especially if afterwards we have the chance at salvation? Sometimes what seems like death is in fact the end of the imaginable future and the birth of something as yet unimagined.
There is a deeper level to these shows made accessible only by maturing out of cynicism without leaving behind critical thinking. In his analysis of Russian Doll, Daniel Drake posits a ‘modern condition’ in which we
turn to the irradiating warmth of one device or another in order to ward off a widespread sense of creeping dread: the constricting feeling that our personal problems are inextricable from the decaying state of the world. The creators of ethical television recognise this feeling. ‘You’re supposed to ask people about their kids, okay? It’s polite, it gives everybody a moment to pretend there’s gonna by a future,’ Nadia insists.
Russian Doll and its creators express a desire to confront the ‘underlying brokenness of human experience’, or, as Adewunmi writes, explore a place ‘in which our badness is openly acknowledged, right before we are gently nudged back onto the road of rehabilitation’. The contrast between The Good Place and Russian Doll is instructive here: the latter insists that we think through what it means to live within the end of times.
This means, Sue Sinclair suggests, that we need to overcome an inner emotional denial of climate change so as to be able to ‘muster the political will required to take the measures still available…’ Such conceptual and practical overcoming is an urgent political task, and it is one demanded of us by recent works including Nancy Fraser’s polemic The Old Is Dying And The New Cannot Be Born (2019). Fraser’s essay is similar to Russian Doll in that it signals a blockage to the future. In Russian Doll it is Nadia’s traumatic past, but in Fraser’s account it is the weight of successive neoliberal governments and an impoverished political imagination. Elections, here, in the US and elsewhere supply evidence of the compulsion to repeat always already tired slogans. But for Fraser, the old hegemony is dead, and it is the new hegemony that is being contested, in pitch battles.
‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’?
Before we fling ourselves towards this new hegemony, it is worth pausing to reflect, as TJ Clark does in his essay ‘For A Left with No Future’ (2012). The hegemony of ‘bourgeois society’ in the early twentieth century – around the time Antonio Gramsci coined the phrase ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’ – was destroyed ‘not by a fusion and fission of the long-assembled potentials of capitalist industry, and the emergence of a transfigured class community, but by the vilest imaginable parody of both.’
Our response should not be either to turn, regressively, against the possibility of change. But neither should it be naïve optimism. Clark calls optimism ‘a political tonality indissociable from the promises of consumption. ‘Future’ exists only in the stock exchange plural.’ It is something to be marketed, newly ingrained in the very texture of money, as Lisa Adkins brilliantly theorises in The Time of Money (2019). Clark, like other anti-progressive Left thinkers, makes the case for paradise now. That is, he endorses a materialist paradise fully available to us, if only we could radically transform our social conditions.
Nietzsche confronts us with ‘eternal recurrence’ and asks us to affirm it (‘joy wants eternity’). Both The Good Place and Russian Doll struggle to do so. Gramsci’s phrase was followed by the words ‘in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear,’ which helps explain the upsurge in cultural representations in which death is obsessively central. However, just like the imminent ‘new’, their meaning is still contested.
For The Good Place, death is a jolly experiment within an all-too-true reflection of our society. Beneath its buoyant sitcom optimism there dwells an allegorical truth about the condition of modern life: not that we’re in hell when we think we’re in heaven, but that our pictures of heaven (and hell) are simply reproductions of our historical imaginations with extra doses of reality-denying fantasy built in. The form may have a reset clause, but the characters continue to ‘flashback’ to their pre-death lives, intoxicated by guilt and self-absorbed obliviousness to the broader world.
In Kimberly Ricci’s account, Russian Doll remains at this level of personal grief. Drake expresses disappointment at this obstacle, as the show provides ‘a trite thematic answer about realising a foundational trauma’ in ‘Nadia’s troubled relationship with her mother.’ He writes, dejectedly, ‘To evoke the crisis that characterises this moment in history and then wonder if we should forgive our parents is to misunderstand the source of the crisis.’ But unless we are capable of working through what Susan Buck-Morss calls a ‘postpartum depression’ induced by ‘a future to which the world has given birth (to paraphrase Marx)’, we will be ‘disappointed.’
If what the repetition of ‘death’ means in these shows is neither a personal nor civilisation apocalypse, then it might be the standing need for what Sinclair calls ‘vigil and palliative care’ as we usher in the new and demand the materialist heaven dreamt by Clark. So much so that, in spite of its criticisms, I think it is worth closing with this quote from the opening page of Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (2016):
Staying with the trouble does not require a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.