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How two network comedies about death teach us to live a better life

In case you haven’t heard, 2016 is the worst year ever.

That certainly sounds true, as far as manifestos that can be condensed down to five words and a number go. The evidence is certainly abundant in tragedies, election updates, a peppering of celebrity divorces and deaths. In our disturbingly polarized culture, all parties seem to share a general sense of impending doom.

Even America’s go-to dealer of sugar-coated escapism, the network television comedy, has been infected by our nation’s deepest existential fears. This past Sunday, Fox’s The Last Man on Earth premiered in its third season, and for the third time, the show featured a death and a funeral. What else would you expect from a series about the few survivors of a virus that annihilated the rest of human life?

The Last Man on Earth is the high watermark of gallows humor, a release valve for our end-times anxieties: “Things are bad now, sure, but they could be worse.” Everyone we’ve ever loved could be dead, and we could fear, as the show’s stars do, that the mere act of repopulating the Earth could lead to death from infection.

And yet somehow, The Last Man on Earth isn’t the most morbid, anxiety-inducing comedy on network television. Last week, NBC premiered The Good Place, a new comedy from writer and producer Michael Schur, responsible, in part, for creating Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the American version of The Office.

The Good Place is Schur’s most conceptually ambitious project. It’s a half-hour network comedy chronicling the afterlife of a reprehensible young woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell). Killed in a humiliating vehicular accident (described, not shown), Eleanor is incorrectly sent to the show’s version of heaven — a utopian neighborhood so selective, Florence Nightingale didn’t make the cut.

Eleanor was no Nightingale. She’s relentlessly focused on her own comfort and fun, with no consideration for anyone else. In one flashback to her time on Earth, she aggressively dodges her responsibility as designated driver. In another, she frequents a coffee shop she knows is run by a serial sexual harasser. But upon her arrival, and for the time being, the locals of The Good Place — including its architect and de facto mayor, played by Ted Danson — have mistaken her for a different Eleanor, a do-gooder who shared her name, but nothing else.

Eleanor fears that her true identity will be discovered, and she’ll be ejected to The Bad Place, which does seem very bad. We don’t see the show’s version of hell, but in the pilot, we hear what Eleanor is told are the agonizing shrieks of its population, an unfathomable grouping that includes the vast majority of all people who ever lived. You know, classic comedy stuff!

The jokes in The Good Place, like the cries of the damned, are so discomfiting that they sometimes play out like the comedic equivalent of a pump fake. There’s a setup, but instead of a punchline, the audience gets jabbed in the tender part of the brain that dwells on how one day, inevitably, we will all die. And what then? For centuries, fiction has imagined the next stage of the human story, from Dante’s writing to John Martin’s paintings. But in some ways, The Good Place is unique.

The series uses comedy to disarm its viewers, and to attract the kind of audience that veers away from more serious material like HBO’s The Leftovers. That show, about the aftermath of the Rapture-like disappearance of millions of people, is a fantastic exploration of the afterlife and corresponding grief. But it’s failed to build a considerable audience, perhaps because its bleak marketing materials promise the most emotionally draining hour of weekly TV imaginable. The Good Place, with its lovely cast, best known for roles in warmhearted comedies, presents itself as a fun place to spend half an hour. And yet it asks the audience, sometimes explicitly, to consider a deeply unsettling afterlife scenario. Seriously! The people who get into The Good Place seemingly devote themselves wholly to noble pursuits. So if you’re making time to watch The Good Place each week, bad news, you wouldn’t get into The Good Place.

Convincing millions of people to watch a weekly satire about the absurdity of our metaphysical beliefs is an accomplishment, but The Good Place goes a step further. Hopefully, we don’t wish eternal damnation on even our worst enemies. The Good Place uses that fear of eternity to get us cheering for a largely despicable hero. It leverages the dread of hell into empathy.

And empathy is the crux of The Good Place. With the help of her Good Place soulmate, an ethicist named Chidi, Eleanor must learn to be good. So far, the show’s internal logic defines being good as being selfless. In the first three episodes, Eleanor learns to consider other people’s feelings, sometimes before her own.

The Last Man on Earth begins with a similar conceit. Phil Miller (Will Forte) starts the series as the would-be last person on the planet. Personality-wise, he falls somewhere around Eleanor’s spot on the human litmus test. Phil soon meets Carol (Kristen Schaal), and a handful of survivors. The relationship between Phil and Carol boils down to the schoolyard question: if you were stuck on a desert island with the world’s most annoying person, would you make it work?

Just as Chidi is teaching Eleanor, the impossibly nice, ever-optimistic Carol is teaching Phil to rise above himself, to show empathy, and to grow. And gradually, the audience, through Carol, learns to care for Phil. By the end of the second season, Phil is still an oaf, but he’s a lovable oaf with a profound sense of responsibility for his fellow survivors.

In the first episode of this season, Carol summarizes her relationship with Phil: “It took me a while to figure out [he] wasn't a dangerous lunatic, but in fact, the man of my dreams.”

The true power of the end times is perspective. Nothing is more clarifying than the threat of obsolescence. And so if 2016 really is the worst year ever, if this really is the beginning of the end, The Good Place and The Last Man on Earth are flashlights in the darkness. Both shows suggest that in the worst times, we have to show the greatest empathy. We must feel compassion for others, no matter how unlikable they might seem. And if we do, we just might get through this.

If not, there’s plenty of room in The Bad Place.