Good Grief: TV Is Getting Better at Mourning

The medium’s episodic structure makes it an apt medium to explore that most long-running and unpredictable of emotions.

On Designated Survivor, Tom Kirkman—and every other character on the show—balances the acknowledgement of loss with the transcendence of it. (Sven Frenzel / ABC)

Designated Survivor has an awkward narrative challenge built into its premise. As the show’s title, and the plot that spills from it, would suggest, ABC’s new Wednesday-night drama revolves around tragedy: A bomb has destroyed the Capitol during the president’s State of the Union address, and everyone in attendance—which is to say nearly all of the people who had composed the highest levels of the U.S. government, save for the eponymous survivor—has been killed. The challenge: How do you write the show in a way that acknowledges the immense loss at its center without succumbing to the gravity of that loss? How do you create a show about mass death that isn’t entirely depressing to watch?

One strategy that is, so far, working well: Designated Survivor has written grief directly into its storylines. It is a political drama, yes, about power and the presidency and what the American public expects of the interaction between the two; it is also, however, a mediation on mourning. And that puts the show in somewhat unlikely league with many other of its fellow recent series, many of which explore, across networks and genres, the profoundly subjective nature of grief. Amazon’s Fleabag derives its dramas, it soon becomes clear, from a pair of deaths that have left the show’s anti-heroine reeling. FXX’s You’re the Worst has recently considered, in its sardonic manner, the effects of the death of a parent. So has, in its way, Amazon’s Transparent. TVLand’s Younger has considered, with its far more chipper approach, the death of a romantic partner. Netflix’s Stranger Things has considered the death of a child. NBC’s This Is Us has considered the death of an infant. NBC’s The Good Place has considered the death of oneself. HBO’s Westworld has taken things a step further still: It has wondered whether cyborgs, too, have the capacity to mourn.

Each of these shows shares a strain of the creative challenge Designated Survivor set up for itself: to make themselves watchable while also acknowledging the series of sadnesses that spur their plots. And to balance the subjectivity of grief with television’s ultimate demand for cinematic relatability. The shows accomplish that, largely, by taking advantage of TV’s episodic nature to explore what might be the most defining element of grief: the way it stretches and shifts and surprises over time. The tendency it has to arrive, completely unexpectedly, and then to hover—a profound sadness that is invasive as it is invisible.

Designated Survivor didn’t start out doing all that. It instead focused its pathos initially on the immediate political challenges the new American president, the former HUD secretary Tom Kirkman, faced as he tried to function as essentially a one-man Executive branch. The show almost, you could legitimately argue, over-focused on that. As Kirkman is sworn in as president—a secretary has procured a Bible for his wife to hold—the scene is strangely calm: The show gives very little indication, at that moment, that the Bible-holding is happening because the entire American government has just been obliterated.

Designated Survivor’s pilot and its following episode both feature many other scenes along those lines. They include some token moments of people crying and commiserating—“I was supposed to go last night, but I couldn’t get a sitter!” one White House staffer says to another, as Kirkman passes her in a hallway—and of some others that show people seemingly in shock. “Everyone’s dead!” another staffer moans, in apparent disbelief, before the episode’s action moves on to other things.

Designated Survivor, given its hour-long running time and the fact that it stars Kiefer Sutherland, has been widely seen as a spiritual sequel to 24. And the comparison is, in that way, apt: The show, at first, presented a 24ian glibness about the deaths that drove its plot, focusing much more on action than on reaction. The show’s pilot is eager to question both who planted the catastrophic bomb, and also—the much more prosaic question—whether the Kirkman presidency can sustain the fact that it’s being helmed by a guy who is for the most part a political amateur. “We see some brief flashes of shock and grief from the characters,” TVLine’s review notes, “but mostly they just snap into action, with no time to waste mourning what just happened.” Designated Survivor, in all that, seems to aspire to the very thing that those in grief find so singularly hard to do: to move on.

But then—and here’s where things get interesting—the show shifts. The episodes that follow the pilot introduce viewers to the dead president’s son, a young man grappling with the assassination of his parents not as a scared citizen, but as a scarred orphan. They also reveal the personal relationship that Hannah Wells, one of the FBI agents investigating the explosion, had with one of that explosion’s victims. And they find that agent engaging in a very human thing: projecting her grief, taking refuge in conspiracy theories as a way to make sense of the nonsensical.

None of these shifts, to be clear, represent high televisional literature. One way that Designated Survivor fits neatly into the 24 tradition is that it operates according to the soap operatic mandates of dudgeon and drama, complete with shocking betrayals and sweeping cliffhangers. But Designated Survivor is also singularly sensitive to the human emotions that underscore its mysteries and intrigues and actions. It takes advantage of its own episodic structure—the lengthening and fraying and tangling of its story, week after week—to offer a depiction of grief that’s as chaotic and unpredictable as the emotion itself.

And its fellow shows take similar advantage of their serial structure. Fleabag initially announces itself as a typical rom-com with a classic antiheroine as its lead; it quickly reveals itself, however, to be a subtle meditation on the nature of grief. The central character (we know her only by her eponymously insulting nickname) is essentially a widow—and yet she is coping with her loss within a culture that has not quite figured out how to accommodate people who are grieving a partner who is not technically a spouse. Fleabag is, as Meghan O’Rourke put it of the murkiness of modern grief, “at sea.”

So is Jimmy, the antic antihero of You’re the Worst, who’s unsure how to mourn the relative whom he hadn’t been close to, but whose approval he had craved. So, too, are the Pfeffermans of Transparent—all of them unsure how to grieve the father who is at once still alive and lost forever. So, too, is Stranger Things’s Jim Hopper. So, too, are This Is Us’s Rebecca and Jack. And so, too, is The Good Place’s Eleanor Shellstrop—who is not mourning the loss of a loved one so much as she’s mourning the loss of the life she led on Earth. The unlikely NBC sitcom makes space within its otherwise Epcotted answer to heaven to allow its main characters to grapple, over time, with finding themselves on the other side of loss: Here, it’s the dead who mourn the loss of the living.

The key for each show, though, is that the mourning plays out over time. Characters’ grief, here, is not simply a blithe B-plot; it’s never neatly contained in a Very Special Episode. It is written, instead, into the emotional logic of each series, extending episode by episode, and functioning as almost a recurring character. You never know when it’s going to show up. The rub, though, is that it always could.

In presenting grief in this nuanced way—as something that aches and arcs and is never fully overcome—these recent shows offer marked contrasts to many other series’s (often older series’s) more one-dimensional depictions of loss. 24 took the shoot-em-up, blow-em-up pathos of the big-budget action movie—in which strangers are killed with impunity—and applied it to the small screen. Game of Thrones, (in)famous for its dispatching of characters both minor and major, understands mourning only in martial terms: When it’s acknowledged at all, grief manifests as an impulse for revenge. The Walking Dead, as it has played out over time, has undergone a kind of mourning fatigue: As its deaths have piled up, the show’s ability to grieve them has decreased. A similar thing happened with Lost—a show that, like The Good Place, was both premised on death and interested in transcending it.

These new shows suggest a new approach, though. They recognize that grief cannot be neatly contained. They also recognize the opposite phenomenon: that grief is a powerful thing, for audiences as well as for characters. When Orange Is the New Black killed off one of its most beloved characters, her fellow inmates mourned her loss; so, however, did her fans beyond Litchfield. They tweeted. They hashtagged. They raged. They accepted. Which is another way of saying: they grieved.