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.