Every TV show is a story about something going wrong. Since TV shows are invented by writers, and since writers are known for loving ideas, it’s hardly surprising that the best programs usually have some unstated central theme in mind. It may be as simple as “Show life in the West Wing” or as complicated as “What’s identity?” Not that these ideas are planted from the beginning. But eventually a show finds a theme, or it finds its way out of relevance.
Each of the TV shows below are extended meditations on a particular human frailty. The Seven Deadly Sins seemed a fitting categorization. When it comes to lessons on virtue, you could do worse than the shows below. And that’s the point.
The Good Place
Speaking of pride, let me tell you about spoilers. Skip ahead and go down to Greed, if you don’t want the entire narrative kicked out from under you.
Still here? Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the entire program. I’m still going to be deliberately vague, because I believe some secrets are worth preserving. Michael Schur’s The Good Place is a philosophical meditation disguised as a television show. You can read it as a religious text, an existentialist manifesto or a sly satire on how TV wears on our bones. Mostly, it’s the medium doing what it does best. An underachieving young woman finds herself in the afterlife. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) awakens in a pleasant room, and is greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the majordomo of the Good Place.
Michael congratulates Eleanor on her life of good works, and says, here you are: eternity. Enjoy forever. There’s just one problem: Eleanor’s not the person Michael thinks she is. She got in under false pretenses… and knows it. That’s the windup for the first season. I understand that hyperbole is the native tongue of entertainment reviewers, but this show is a real two-ton wowhammer of give-no-fucks. The Good Place is one madcap ride, frankly. In the first season, we follow Eleanor as she meets her fellow afterworlders. Each of them has their own set of quirks and maddening problems. And then there’s the lord of misrule himself, the tight-lipped Michael… who has a strange amount of ego vested in a neighborhood that seems so selectively imperfect.
Nobody’s happy there. The through line for The Good Place, the factor that keeps all the characters off-balance, the power that keeps them deluded about the Good Place, is pride. Pride about saving face. Pride about fulfilling their roles in paradise (good boyfriend, straight-A student, Buddhist monk). Pride about being admitted to the Good Place. Even Eleanor, a self-admitted mediocrity, has a kind of twisted pride in her indifference: So what if I didn’t care? Even the name, “The Good Place,” betrays a kind of sneaking hubris in a clever, cruel joke well pulled off.
Boy, is it ever.
I know what you’re thinking: Greed? Really? Mike Judge tends towards one subject: stupidity and its epiphenomena. Well, hold onto your swamp fire, friend. Like a Baptist Church newsletter, there’s a lot more horseplay going on here than you’d think. This Judge-Altschuler-Krinsky HBO comedy is still focused on human delusion. But there’s a twist.
The basic question underlying the travails of Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), Big Head (Josh Brener), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), and Erlich (T.J. Miller) is: Why do decent people have to put up with the likes of Gavin Belson (Matt Ross)? More to the point, what enables an entire ecosystem of dysfunctional engineers to hold ordinary people at gunpoint?
Greed. Silicon Valley is the story of institutionalized avarice. It’s the storm-drain that draws our protagonists towards California and all its strangeness. Without greed holding up the entire weird Valley greenhouse, there’s no way our (relatively) normal protagonists would refrain from projectile vomiting on a regular basis.
Also, Valley shows us a side of money we don’t usually glimpse on TV. Namely, how boring and insipid the realities of massive wealth become. The punitively rich collection of homebrewed muppets the gang encounters are the best advertisement for avoiding the Valley. The rich dudes aren’t living fulfilled existences. They’ve just got subsidized problems. If Idiocracy showed us the down side of being the smartest guy in the world, Silicon Valley demonstrates the problems of success among the damned: Even when you win, you’re still there.
Wherever you stand on the Buddha’s sales pitch, I think we’d agree that desire can be good. Desire for justice, for getting footloose, for making it to the end of this feature. All unobjectionable. So what’s lust got to do with it?
Lust, in the toxic sense, transforms the other person into a body. A nothing. A null point. A receptacle for your hunger. Lust encourages the haver to use people as a means to an end, and not as an end in themselves. But using people as tools is literally top course in Westworld, where The. Hosts. Are. Things. That’s the attraction. As contemptible Narrative bigwig Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) says at the beginning, “Do you want to think that your husband is really fucking that beautiful girl or that you really just shot someone? This place works because the guests know the hosts aren’t real.”
He has a funny idea of “works.” Westworld is a profoundly Calvinist document: Perfectly doomed mankind will perfectly sink itself, given the power to enact its fantasies en masse. I haven’t seen such a blistering condemnation of humanity since The Animatrix’s “The Second Renaissance.”
And while violence is certainly part of what Westworld sells, sex is the draw. The hosts are vessels to receive human degradation. Which might give you an insight into how the humans of Westworld see themselves, and how much contempt they have for their own species. Lust is repetitive; it’s dull and gets duller without any tincture added to the mixture. Lust also wears out soon enough. Both of these factoids are mirrored in how the fleshling clients of Westworld treat the hosts. As the co-founder Ford (Anthony Hopkins) opines, “In here, we were gods.” Trysts with gods never finish well for mortals. Or, come to think of it, the gods. “These violent delights have violent ends.”
American Crime Story
The version of American Crime Story I’m referring to is this spring’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which deals with the 1997 slaying of the designer (Edgar Ramirez) by spree murderer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss). But to split apples and call the halves equal, we could be speaking of any edition of Ryan Murphy’s new anthology series.
The travails of The People v. O. J. Simpson were as much about envy, and its hold on the mind of the accused, as Versace is. In the first series, the longing was submerged below the mask of fame. Here jealousy is palpable, floating like an oil slick on a bowl of ocean water. The story of one man’s madness is straightforward in a way that’s new for Murphy. That doesn’t make it any less compelling. When a teacher asks little Andrew his wish, “just one wish, what would it be?” “To be special,” Cunanan replies, and everything erupts from that moment of compressed desire, and all the coveting that comes with it.
The Terror is an AMC psycho-drama-historico-thriller, based on Dan Simmons’ novel of the same name. The narrative is a fictionalization of the very real Captain John Franklin, and his 1845 expedition to the very real Arctic. In the middle of the 19th century, two Royal Navy ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, went North into the icy floes. They were hunting for the Northwest Passage. What they found was cold death. Later investigations showed that the Terror and the Erebus met their fate near King William Island.
There’s all sorts of speculations about what happened. In Simmons’ book, and the show, there are suspicious deeds afoot… perhaps supernatural.
AMC’s The Terror begins with a small human struggle. Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) is second-in-command of the expedition, right under Franklin (Ciaran Hinds). Calamity strikes their voyage. Despite Crozier’s sensible arguments to head north and avoid a frozen hellscape, Franklin decides to press on, with predictable results.
Now, The Terror is largely concerned with eating, and who’s eating who. Something is hunting the Englishmen, but that’s not really the main event. With or without the mysterious creature, the gnawing never stops. The Brits are consuming lead by the can; the Inuits wisely eat seal meat; the British begin to eat each other; some men poison themselves in order to poison other men.
And there’s more in store. Gluttony is usually identified with obesity, but that’s not really accurate. Gluttony has nothing to do with body shape. Rather, gluttony deals in over-indulgence, in excessive consumption. Greed is lack of generosity; gluttony is a lack of sense. You get gluttonous for what you’ve got to have (but swallow too much of anyway).
Everybody needs land to live. It’s where I keep all of my stuff—including all these hot takes. But the British, and the colonial powers, were famous eaters of land. The Terror is the story of that gluttony and how the British Empire went where they had no right to be. Tuunbaq is the reprisal for eating more than their share.
The expedition, in a literal and figurative sense, eats itself, which is appropriate: The great hunger is the lash that drives the ship onwards. The Terror is about a hundred different things, including the foolishness of its captain, the Heart of Darkness, the mist of history and the frontiers of reason. At heart, however, it’s a deep-rooted story about the unslakable thirst of Empire and what results from it.
Twin Peaks: The Return
David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks is a show about the world’s strange weave. And the prime thread here concerns a single, tragic death. The senseless slaying of Laura Palmer, and the hundred evils that came out of that dark act, are the product of senseless wrath.
As we learn in the Return, Killer BOB (a posthumous Frank Silva) is no mere demon: He is closer to a negative principle inside our universe. BOB was spewed into our world shortly after the atomic test at White Sands. From that dire necessity, The Giant sent Laura into our world to oppose BOB’s evil. Laura was more than a prom queen: She was a keystone. An avatar of celestial goodness sent from the Other Place to balance the world. BOB killed her in a moment of offense and anger: How dare she intrude?
That’s the prologue. As far as The Return goes, wrath in Twin Peaks is personified by the terrifying and endlessly fascinating Mr. C (Kyle MacLachlan). Mr. C is Dale Cooper’s evil doppelgänger. As the finale of Twin Peaks Season Two showed us, Good Cooper (also MacLachlan) was locked inside the Black Lodge and Mr. C was disgorged in his place. That bad eminence spent the next twenty years sowing evil across America. A quarter of The Return’s runtime concerns the deadpan, flat-affect Mr. C practicing sadism on any human being unfortunate enough to cross his path.
Why does Mr. C kill? Why act with such malice? Mr. C has poisonous intentions towards everything the light touches. But the power and sex and money are byproducts of his crime. They don’t seem to fill any need. He just likes to hurt. Wrath doesn’t need anything else. It feeds on itself, and is content.
The story’s easy to summarize: MI5 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) hunts the assassin Villanelle (Jodine Comer). But that’s the surface business.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s BBC America series (based on Luke Jennings’ books) is primarily about two bored, overqualified women. When we begin the show, Eve’s hungover and Villanelle’s in an Austrian dessert shop. Both are hard-working, razor-smart, able, willing… and terminally underused. Eve’s a professional intelligence agent, married, has a good office job. Villanelle lives a magazine life, Italian holidays, the works. Neither’s wanting for the necessities of existence. But they’re essentially adrift. Not because they lack direction. But because the world around them has it all locked down. Villanelle isn’t getting props for her killing spree. Eve’s spy career gets deep-sixed because she leaves the room for a single moment. Until their lives connect, neither has the chance for full self-actualization. Once the chase is on, we see exactly just how much they’ve been holding back.
Given the superlative abilities of the two leads, it might seem strange to view Killing Eve as an example of sloth. The expression “cat and mouse” doesn’t usually conjure up image of sluggishness. Both animals have a vested interest in being as active as possible, after all.
That’s because Killing Eve is not about the boredom of its characters, but about the stupid lassitude of the system around them. The show’s a feminist take on a drearily male genre: Intelligence agent hunts killer. What a surprise, and how welcome, that Waller-Bridge decided to tell a story about underemployment. How apt. How timely. Our culture doesn’t have much use for female excellence in the workplace. Even when they’re clearly so much better at their job than any man.
The enforced sloth of Eve and Villanelle is not the result of their choices. Rather, it’s the logical conclusion of a world where women are primarily viewed as pretty things. As Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) told Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt) in very different show, “I know what it is to be capable and beautiful and ambitious and be on people like Sergey and Larry’s checklist of things that look good to have on a shelf.” Because the world is lazy—in morals, in action, in deed—it obliges the people inside it to be torpid as well. Hell, Villanelle murks a guy for lack of anything better do to. She confesses to her prey, “I have no idea,” before she splatters him.
ALL OF THE ABOVE
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Now, these are all well and good for individual sins, sure. But what if that’s not enough? What if, like a dying man hunting for a Blues Traveler hot hits mixtape, I want to experience everything at once?
What if I want all seven sins, no talk, all rock?
Is there a show which summarizes all of the sins listed above? By some act of human genius, is there a work of art which makes all seven sins watchable, palatable, learnable? A TED Talk for fuckups, basically? Tell me, is there a show which we can use to instruct the Youths?
There is indeed such a show. And I have saved it for last.
I cannot think of any work of human ingenuity which so perfectly describes the possibilities of mortal depravity as It’s Always Sunny does. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, why are you reading a TV list, anyway?
If you do understand, then you’re probably reaching for the tobacco-juice-stained revolver you keep on the ol’ nightstand and are nodding slowly: “That’s right. Yes, that’s right.” If so, congratulations. It’s Always Sunny manages to catalog vice so wonderfully, I wonder if it was made by human hands at all. The five leads score more venality in one episode than most of us get in a lifetime. If the human civilization that invented Precious Moments should be scraped away by a passing comet, I wouldn’t worry. Aliens could rebuild our wing shacks and paper mills out of It’s Always Sunny without missing a beat. What can I say? I like life at Paddy’s Pub.
Jason Rhode is a writer from West Texas. He’s inventing new sins as we speak, and is on Twitter @iamthemaster.