From 2014 to 2017, HBO’s The Leftovers built a cult following, based on its painful and gorgeous meditations of grief. The show forced viewers to confront human suffering with little resolve, under the supernatural premise that a rapture-like event, The Departure, vanished two percent of Earth’s population, forcing those left behind to grapple with loss and uncertainty. Television, thereafter, seemed to become eerily reflective of the times—Scandal’s focus on corruption and Veep’s cast of bumbling buffoons felt all too real, as did House of Cards and, later, The Handmaid’s Tale.
In the year-and-a-half since, TV has continued to reflect political angst even more directly (see: the Roseanne and Murphy Brown reboots). Meanwhile, shows about politics have been rendered confused. In April 2017, the New York Times published a roundtable with TV writers and noted: “Suddenly, the writers who work on political television shows were competing less with one another and more with real life, because of a president who transformed their seemingly escapist scripts into something resembling nonfiction.”
But there was one show this year that captured and best made sense of our bleak state of affairs: the Amazon Prime original series Forever, which premiered on September 14 and stars longtime collaborators Fred Armisen (Oscar) and Maya Rudolph (June) as imperfect soulmates. In all of television’s attempts to get real and political, a series about what happens post-despair turned out to be a perfect parable for the world: After what felt like dying, we are reborn and obligated to try again.
Within the first 30 seconds of Episode 1, Oscar and June meet, meet again, date, wed, grow together and over the years, grow apart, all free of dialogue. Oscar, humdrum and passive, is fully content with their self-inflicted complacency, whereas June soon becomes tired of their routine. When she finally makes her desires known, after 14 years of identical lake house trips and freshly caught meals, Oscar agrees to liven things up. In their attempt, at the end of the first episode, he dies. She’s heartbroken, but soon undergoes a major outlook shift perpetuated by a convenient and undeserved promotion. When June’s life starts to look up at the end of Episode 2, she dies, too—unglamorously, choking on a macadamia nut in front of an ill-equipped flight attendant. They meet in what appears to be a peculiar purgatory for her and a real joy for him: back in their old home, with their old furniture, ready to repeat the mistakes they made in life in the afterlife.
The premise is dark: the couple is now together forever, well beyond their vow of till death do us part. It’s probable that June won’t find her haven unless she mends the relationship she never did in life. June instead abandons Oscar for a mansion on a beachfront town full of hedonistic ghosts. They’re a cultish crew dedicated to forgetting about their lives before death and enjoying themselves in their respective forevers. June is attracted to the acceptable selfishness of this in-between place. But because it is so much more exorbitant than the suburbia she and Oscar called home, it feels almost too close to life on Earth. Whatever afterlife this is, there is still a division of wealth and status in Forever. For such an unlikely premise—which, on multiple occasions, leads our protagonists to walking on the ocean’s ground and doing other improbable, magical things—you’d think there would be a more surrealist depiction of “life” after life. Or maybe you just want there to be.
What comes after despair, though, is even more grief. Even the afterlife is riddled with obstacle. Reinvention—of June’s life and of their relationship—is an ongoing process, one that seems as impossible to manage in death as it was in life. For them, the aftermath of their routine relationship is the continuation of it. That might seem like a negative outlook. But the beauty of Forever is its focus on the power of effort. The infinite afterlife allows June and Oscar the opportunity to work through their issues, part of which, yes, involves continued suffering. But the final episode of the season suggests there’s hope on the horizon and even a breakthrough or two.
The Good Place has been portraying its own unusual afterlife for two-and-a-half seasons, offering a hilarious, inventive interpretation of what happens after death. Do enough good and you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife with your dream home, your soulmate, and limitless fro-yo. The end of Season 2 and the entirety of Season 3, both of which aired this year, complicated its already unusual concept, after the show’s four protagonists found out they were not in the Good Place (heaven) but actually the Bad Place (hell). Watching the show is an exercise in approaching death with humor and delightful surreality.
Forever is the opposite—June and Oscar find themselves in an afterlife that’s more grim and realistic than it is romanticized. The pair is forced to concede that they are imperfect partners to no end. There is no good place after all, just survival.