“Where am I? Who are you? And what’s going on?”
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) asks these questions in the first scene of the first episode of The Good Place because she wants genuine answers to them. She’s just arrived in an unfamiliar, albeit pleasantly pristine, office waiting room where she’s never been before, unaware that she’s (a) dead, and (b) in a carefully constructed version of what appears to be heaven. She’s understandably disoriented and needs some clarity about what’s happening to her.
But the fact that Eleanor immediately inquires about about her state of being is also The Good Place’s way of announcing what sort of show it’s going to be. Specifically, it’s going to be the kind of show that thrives on raising questions, especially fundamental ones about the meaning of life.
That’s pretty heavy stuff for a broadcast network comedy. But comedies that tackle heavy, philosophical matters — let’s call them existential sitcoms — have become more common in the past few years. These are funny shows, or at the very least dramedies, that explicitly and consistently explore ethics, spirituality, or what purpose human beings are meant to serve on Earth. Typically, they deal with those earthly issues while placing their characters in heightened, even fantastical situations. The Good Place, which will enter its third season this month, is the gold standard for this type of series. But it is not the only example.
In this millennium, one of the earliest series to almost qualify as an existential comedy was Bryan Fuller’s Wonderfalls, about a young woman (Caroline Dhavernas) taking advice from her collection of animal figurines, who often instruct her to engage in acts of altruism. Around the same time, My Name Is Earl, Greg Garcia’s exploration of karma in which Jason Lee’s thieving Earl decides to atone for every misdeed he’s ever committed, emerged as a more traditional sitcom with an existential bent. Like The Good Place, it engages actively with the notion of what it means to be a decent, ethical person. But unlike the type of existential sitcoms that have emerged in the past five years, it’s not set in any kind of mystical universe, or one like Wonderfalls, where the bizarre interrupts the banal.
As is true of another rising comedy subgenre that I recently wrote about, the murder-com, the contemporary existential-comedy template was really established first on the drama side. Specifically, it was established by Lost, the same series that also cemented our love for mystery-box shows. (The Good Place, which cites Lost as one of its key inspirations, is one of those, too.) By placing a group of plane crash survivors on a mysterious island and forcing them to figure out how to survive and, potentially, escape, Lost was able to raise a lot of ethical and philosophical questions over its six-season run, including its running debate about science versus faith. But the most central Lost inquiry wasn’t, “Is Jack right or is John Locke right?” or “What is the smoke monster?” or “Seriously, why was Walt able to kill birds exactly, I can’t believe I still don’t have an answer to this?” It was the same question that philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) wrestles with in The Good Place: “What do we owe each other?”
Tons of Lost copycats — nearly all of them hour-long sci-fi-ish dramas — emerged after that series became a hit, though few dealt quite as openly or smartly with the human condition. Dramas that came along a bit later, like Humans, Westworld, The Leftovers, and the canceled Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, as well as the horror anthology Black Mirror, have done that more explicitly. (The dearly departed, begging to be reincarnated Pushing Daisies — another Bryan Fuller joint about a man with the power to bring the dead back to life, briefly, through touch — has a tagged toe in the existential-comedy space, too.)
All of these shows have been able to successfully dig into such deep questions in part because they take place in worlds that resemble our own but also contain magical, supernatural, or alternate-reality elements that make them feel entirely removed from it. It’s easier, it seems, for audiences to wrestle with some of life’s greatest conundrums when there’s a layer of the fantastical to cushion the seriousness of what these shows are asking us to confront.
Comedies, by their nature, add another cushion: the idea that we can also laugh at the possibility that perhaps life is random and meaningless. With that in mind, the past five years have given us Rick and Morty, the Adult Swim animated cult phenomenon about a teenager, his gonzo, alcoholic grandfather, their travels through strange dimensions, and, yes, existentialism; the recently canceled Last Man on Earth, a post-apocalyptic comedy about how people evolve (or in the case of Phil, the Tucson native played by Will Forte, devolve) on a decimated planet; BoJack Horseman, an animated series about an equine former sitcom star’s existential crisis that unfolds in an sideways version of Hollywood populated largely by animals; and, as previously noted, The Good Place, a series that allows us to imagine what life after death must be like and consider Kantian theory while also making jokes about Bed, Bath and Beyond and Blake Bortles.
This year has continued to add more entries to this intellectual television niche. Lodge 49, an endearingly askew dramedy — emphasis on “edy” over “dram” — about a surfer dude who finds social support within an old-school fraternal lodge, focuses on characters struggling with what it means to find happiness while uncovering enough lodge-associated strangeness to give it an increasingly alt-universe reality vibe. The trailer for Amazon’s forthcoming Forever implies that the Maya Rudolph–Fred Armisen series about a married couple may skate into the existential-comedy realm. Maniac, the Netflix oddity in which Jonah Hill and Emma Stone reside in a surreal version of the future in which they both participate in a medical study, has at least a few brain cells in that realm as well.
The new Jim Carrey comedy Kidding — about a grieving Mr. Rogers-esque kids’ show host named Jeff Pickles — isn’t set in a dystopian nightmare or purgatory. But the whimsy inherent in the day-to-day of Jeff’s experience, in which conversations with puppets are 100 percent normal, plus his struggle for renewed purpose after losing his son, give it an existential-comedy vibe. While its universe bends more toward drama than humor, there are enough laughs in the pilot for God Friended Me — the CBS series in which Brandon Micheal Hall plays an atheist who receives a life-altering Facebook friend request from God — to also edge it into this subgenre, especially since its premise is steeped in the sort of philosophical debate that has fueled shows like Lost and The Good Place. Even certain episodes of television qualify as works of existential comedy, even if the series that produced them don’t quite. HBO’s High Maintenance constantly presents us with New Yorkers trying to figure out their place in the universe — pot will make you ponder these things — but while it mostly takes place in iterations of Manhattan and Brooklyn that are rooted in reality, it occasionally adopts a point of view that is akin to delving into an alt-reality. The all-dog episode from season one, “Grandpa,” is a great example of that. In addition to continuing to hold down the title of 2018’s most mind-blowing half-hour of TV, the “Teddy Perkins” installment of Atlanta — set in that weird, ghostly mansion while provocatively probing into matters of celebrity and race — strikes me as an example of existential comedy, too.
Do all these series and episodes indicate that Americans are more capable than they’ve been before of considering life’s big questions with a mix of rigor and bemusement? A quick glance at what’s happening in my Twitter feed suggests that the answer to that is, um, hell nah? But television has certainly become bigger, deeper, and more sophisticated, and that has made room for more shows like this to exist. Many of the people creating the shows we are watching now also were influenced by series like Lost or showrunners like Bryan Fuller and are inventing their own narratives with thoughts of those past series still rattling around in their heads.
Also, whether by design or by coincidence, this seems like exactly the right time for the existential comedy to flourish. At a time when cultural, political, and ethical norms are being tossed out the window and change is happening faster than Eleanor Shellstrop can say, “What the fork?” these types of shows feel especially valuable to viewers, who paradoxically crave the opportunity to think about “what really matters” but also are incapable of unplugging from the devices that invite us to gorge on television. We want escapism and a laugh at the end of the day, but, perhaps more than usual, we find ourselves asking the questions that Eleanor asks in that first episode of The Good Place — “Where am I? Who are you? And what’s going on?” — as well as that bigger one the series keeps returning to: “What do we owe each other?”
And then of course there’s this simple fact: At the end of draining, demoralizing days, more of us may be inclined to throw up our hands and accept the truth of what Morty says to his sister, Summer, in the season-one episode “Rixty Minutes,” the one where Rick is able to access cable television from a multitude of alternate timelines: “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”