I've been watching not one but two critically-acclaimed comedies involving the afterlife. What this says about me, I'm not sure. What it says about our society, well, a lot of things I suppose. But first, the facts! And, needless to say, some massive, honking great spoilers.
The Good Place is an NBC series, available in the UK via Netflix (I got a gift subscription). The premise of the series is simple. Here, let the trailer explain it:
Yes, Ted Danson is in charge. As Michael, an angelic being, he is responsible for keeping The Good Place running smoothly. The arrival of Eleanor (Kristin Bell) messes things up because her bad vibes destabilise everything. Eleanor attempts to correct her moral flaws by getting actual lessons in ethics from Chidi, a former professor of moral philosophy. But things only seem to get worse. And then a series of revelations occurs that overturns everything Eleanor thought she knew.
The Good Place is a chirpy, smart comedy with a very tight script and engaging characters, as one might expect with its pedigree. It looks good, sounds good, and in its flashbacks to the characters' earthly lives offers a good measure of barbed commentary on our shallow, fame-obsessed culture. In a brilliant ensemble cast Britain's own Jameela Jamil stands out as the super-rich philanthropist Tahani, endlessly name-dropping, but constantly overshadowed by a more gifted sister. You really believe she values Bono's friendship.
What's more, over three seasons The Good Place evolves to be more than a one-joke show about how funny it would be if an averagely bad person went to heaven by mistake. Because that's not really the point of it all. Far from it.
Very different is Forever. This Amazon Prime original consists of just eight half-hour episodes, so far as I can tell. It's much more sedate and lyrical than The Good Place, almost as if its creators decided to make a counterpoint to that series' bouncy, paradoxical afterlife. Forever focuses tightly (but not exclusively) on June and Oscar, a typical middle-aged couple. When Oscar dies in a skiing accident June is distraught, but gradually rebuilds her life and gets a high-powered promotion. Then she chokes to death on a macadamia nut, whereupon she is reunited with Oscar in a kind of suburb of the dead.
There are plenty of comedic moments in Forever, but the overall tone is bittersweet, sad, lyrical. As June Maya Rudolph (who also guest stars in The Good Place, oddly enough) is superbly restrained, a woman living a life of quiet and gently smiling desperation. Oscar, utterly conventional, thoroughly nice, is portrayed by Fred Armisen as a man who would never think of himself as a typical sitcom husband, despite acting like one most of the time.
In Forever the idea that happiness lies in the predictable, the routine, is explored and firmly rejected. At the same time the series seems to insist on the primacy of love. One episode, which features just one main cast member for a few moments right at the end, is particularly striking in this respect. The pursuit of happiness - that fundamental American right - is depicted here in a quirky, beautiful fashion. If you're looking for artistry in a sitcom, as well as a decent number of laughs, this is one to try.