from our Optimisticles blog series
By Wes Kilgore, Well Beings
With the influx of programming from new streaming services such as AppleTV+, Peacock and Disney+, much has been said about the new Golden Age of TV we are apparently experiencing. One trend of this Golden Age is the surprising number of shows in which death and grieving are central to the plot. Sure, excellent mortality-themed TV shows such as Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies have surfaced sporadically over the past couple of decades. But for some reason, at this particular moment, grief seems to be hot in Hollywood. Here are some of the best new-ish TV shows that are brilliantly handling the painful and emotional issues surrounding loss of life.
Life & Beth
Those familiar with Amy Schumer’s particular brand or estrogen-fueled, raunchy comedy may be surprised at the insight, maturity and the thread of sweetness that runs through much of her latest offering, Life & Beth (Hulu). The series, written, directed and starring Schumer, stands as a tour de force in the comedian’s body of work thus far. Loosely based on incidents in Schumer’s life, the dramedy takes an unflinching look at what happens when you have unresolved issues with a close loved one that passes away. It also explores how problematic experiences during childhood, especially among teenage girls, can continue to affect us as adults. “This show looks trauma right in the face. Those experiences: your first kiss, how boys treat you, how the other girls treat you” says Schumer
Dead to Me
Netflix’s Dead to Me, which just wrapped filming on its third and final season, is another show that grapples with complexities of how to mourn a person you’ve had a problematic relationship with. Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini star as Jen and Judy, two strangers who strike up a friendship at a grief support group. Linda Cardellini told Deadline, “In terms of her mourning… that relationship is very toxic and I thought the idea of mourning a toxic relationship was interesting because I haven’t really seen it done like that. Jen and Judy only have each other to rely on in the worst of times, and they end up not being able to live without each other because they need each other to get them through something that they can’t share with anybody else.”
Elizabeth Olsen leads the cast of Wandvision as Wanda Maximoff (aka Scarlet Witch) in the hugely popular Disney+ series that takes place about three to four weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame. At the core of the retro-kitsch TV show is the story of a Marvel superhero so wracked with grief over the death of her partner, Vision (Paul Bettany), that she creates her own reality to mask the pain. Therapist Kati Morton suggests that because she’s dealing with the deaths of her brother, her parents and Vision, Wanda’s grief is a little more complicated. “What Wanda’s experiencing isn’t just grief but also PTSD from that experience,” Morton tells Inverse. “It could even be argued that it’s complex PTSD because there have been repeated traumas throughout and she can’t get her footing.”
Ricky Gervais’ good judgement is a bit suspect. This year, he looked at the backlash and near-cancellation that Dave Chappelle faced for telling transphobic jokes in his Netflix specials and decided, “I want a piece of that.” But before wading into TERF territory with his own Netflix comedy special, Gervais – writer, director and star of The Office (UK), Extras, and Derek – created some of the most memorable characters and poignant moments on television. He is somewhat of an alchemist, continuously transforming his comic stories about the downtrodden, deluded and sometimes despicable into entertainment gold. His Netflix dramedy After Life is no exception. After Life is a show that is essentially about love, relationships and how we cope when everything goes away. In this video Gervais, Tony Way, Kerry Godliman, and Jo Hartley talk about grief in the show, what it means to lose somebody, and how they have dealt with grief in their own lives.
Sorry for Your Loss
Elizabeth Olsen makes an encore appearance on this list as the star of Sorry for Your Loss (Facebook Watch). In the series, Olsen plays Leigh Shaw, a writer and recently-widowed woman who, along with her family, are struggling to cope with the unexpected death of her husband. One of the interesting aspects of having a show on Facebook Watch is that the social network for this series serves as sort of a default support group. Dozens of Sorry for Your Loss viewers shared their own stories about bereavement. “It ended up being this lovely community, and place, and resource for people to bond, and connect and share,” Olsen told Indiewire.
Showtime’s half-hour dark comedy, The End, centers on the multigenerational family dynamics of Dr. Kate Brennan (Frances O’Connor), an Australian-based specialist in palliative care. The series attempts to tackle hot-button topics surrounding end of life care, such as euthanasia. “A lot of the show is about death and how we look after our loved ones as they die,” says series writer and producer Sam Strauss. “A lot of Americans have just experienced that (during the COVID pandemic). I think our series has a really hopeful heart underneath it and it is really all about family and finding the fun in aging.”
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay
In Everything’s Gonna Be Okay (Freeform/Hulu) two American sisters, Genevieve and Matilda, are thrust into the care of their somewhat juvenile, Australian half-brother, Nicholas, after their father dies of cancer. Nicholas is neurotic and ill-equipped and the show uses his sudden, tenuous guardianship as a launchpad to explore issues about resilience, independence, sexuality and neurodivergence. Writer and creator Josh Thomas, who stars as Nicholas, was diagnosed with autism as an adult, and has been praised for the authenticity that he brings to the show’s autistic character, Matilda. “There’s a balance between not wanting to make autistic people look stupid and not treating that character with kid gloves and letting her be flawed,” Thomas says.
The Amazon Prime Video comedy, Upload, puts a spin on the cryogenically frozen sci-fi trope. In the show, which has been renewed for a third season, the consciousness of terminally ill or dying patients are uploaded into digital avatars that allow their friends and family to continue interacting with them in virtual environments. Like the similarly-themed The Good Place, which was created by Upload creator Greg Daniels’s frequent collaborator Michael Schur, the series hits the pause button on tackling the delicate issues of grief and mourning, and opts to explore concepts such as the after-life and satirize 21st century consumerism.
Six Feet Under
This list wouldn’t feel complete without a nod to the O.G. of grief-based programming, HBO’s Six Feet Under. Set in a family funeral home, the TV show addresses all kinds of issues surrounding death, sexuality and family dynamics. And series creator Alan Ball (Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty) pretty much set the benchmark on how to successfully weave dark humor into storylines laced with tragedy and grieving. In a 2005 Utne Reader interview, Ball explained how as a young teen, the accidental death of his sister shaped his perspective on funeral homes. “Well, my sister just disappeared. And then all of a sudden, we went to a funeral home and there she was, lying in a box… She didn’t look like her – she did and she didn’t – and it was weird and creepy. The whole experience was muffled, and that stayed with me.”
About the Author
Wes Kilgore is a writer, musician and bon vivant based in the Washington, DC area, and the proud parent of two disturbingly well-adjusted young women and two borderline sociopathic Corgis.