Jews are taught that it is our role to repair the world. Even if we cannot finish our tikkun olam work, we are not free to abstain from it.
But what if we’re fixing the wrong things? What if our intentions are good but our implementation flawed? And is that worse than corrupted motivations that help us achieve our world-fixing goals? Does one good Yom Kippur service always clean our slate for another year, no matter how short we have fallen? Or must we, as the Mishnah teaches, repent one day before we die, with the imperative to repent daily, because we never know when the end will come?
Some of those questions are pondered in “Good Omens,” a six-episode satirical miniseries detailing the relationship between an angel and a demon who are working together to prevent the apocalypse. Based on a beloved novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and released by Amazon Prime last week, the show offers a muddled morality: What if an angel isn’t all good and a demon isn’t all bad? What if their respective “upstairs” and “downstairs” supervisors, caught in the bureaucracy of “how it’s always been done,” lack the imagination to slope the world toward anything but war?
It reminded me about how much of today’s television energy is spent imagining the darker moments in life: Stories of angels, demons, gods and monsters permeate our viewing choices, and ask us existential questions about this world and the next.
Can we affect our final outcome with our deeds during our time on Earth? What would it take for us to break bad? Is evil ever justified? And how soon will climate change, nuclear war or something else bring about the end of the world?
A recent analysis by an Australian think tank suggests that the world could end in 2050, so in the 31 years we have left, let’s talk about good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and demons, gods and monsters, heroes and antiheroes. Let’s talk polarities and way more than 50 shades of gray in considering morality and ethics. What’s the right thing? Can intention color a good deed morally murky? Is evil born or cultivated?
And since it’s scary to talk about these things in reality, let’s turn to TV, where these questions are cloaked in the pleasing guise of entertainment.
Series such as “The Good Place,” “Miracle Workers” and “God Friended Me” have me asking questions about God. Is there divine power? Is the deity benevolent, vengeful or indifferent? How, if at all, do we let belief shape our actions? Do we have the power to stop an apocalypse through our deeds, or is everything preordained?
As for the afterlife, some shows — such as “Westworld,” “The 100,” “Black Mirror” and “The OA” — predict we could have our consciousnesses uploaded into someone or something else. Others suggest our spirits will linger until our unfinished business is resolved by someone who can reach us in the “In Between.”
We look to TV to explain evil. In shows like “Homeland,” “24,” “Fauda” and “The Enemy Within,” we see survivors of tragedy emerging with thoughts of revenge. An accidental drone strike on civilians transforms a local witness or family member into a terrorist; the small epicenter of their grief ripples into a catastrophically vast radius of destruction as they justify their moral compromises. Does forgiving such behavior in fiction mean that we’ll forgive similarly questionable choices in the real world?
We look to heroes to save us. But will they come from the DC “Arrowverse” or Marvel’s stock of heroes, metas, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents or mutants? Or will it be the everyday heroes who enforce law and order, who fight fire and crime and illness in their cities?
This is not the first time that TV production slates have reflected our search for clarity in the debate over good vs. evil, and come to the conclusion that our salvation — as well as our condemnation — lies within. Within five years of the 9/11 attacks, network TV was awash with disaster-and-salvation narratives. “24” perpetuated the paranoia of not knowing whom to trust and seeing enemies everywhere. “Rescue Me” lauded the NYPD and FDNY heroes, but revealed 9/11’s lingering infections and cumulative psychological impact. “Lost” struck ordinary people with tragedy and created conflict between faith and reason. And “Heroes” sent a message: All it takes is one event to give ordinary people extraordinary new abilities, but how they wield that power determines whether they’ll be heroes or villains.
The landscape for television has never been more rich, diverse and inventive. But it also reflects how world disruption is inspiring creativity that stems from curiosity, disbelief, fear and paranoia. We are struggling. Our faith is shaky. We don’t know what’s real, what’s good or evil, or how our actions impact others. We know nothing, except that the night is dark and full of terrors. We are unsure whom to trust and are desperately seeking heroism, looking to aliens in capes and people in scrubs to go beyond the call of duty, defying legality, authority and bureaucracy to do what’s morally right, blowback be damned.
The endless menu of today’s TV options, created for immediate mass consumption, contains narratives different enough from daily reality that we can still consider them to be escapism. But we’re also seeing a reflection of the familiar, as creators hold up the mirror and ask us — as maybe we should ask ourselves — is this who you are? And is this who you want to be?