Though I grew up in the church, I was catechized by television. Even more than the memorized prayers I knew like breathing as a child, the numberless repetition of reruns shaped my religious imagination. Ask me to free associate on the subject of hell today, and I might hifalutinly start with more recently acquired allusions like the contrapasso of Dante’s Inferno, but not far behind would be Carmine Ragusa wearing red devil horns and singing “Heat Wave” in a particularly theological episode of “Laverne and Shirley.”
It was on that classic ABC sitcom that I also saw my first small screen depiction of heaven. In the same 1979 episode, everyone’s favorite Shotz Brewery girls alternately dreamed of descending to a hell just hot enough to toast giant marshmallows on pitchforks and ascending to a heaven filled with marshmallow clouds. Television eternity, it turns out, is a silly place no matter your final destination, but the interesting thing about this episode (fittingly titled “Upstairs Downstairs”) was that it was not actually attempting to depict the afterlife, but rather its characters’ understanding of it — and, by extension, its writers’ assumptions about what their audience expected that understanding to be. Heaven and hell may have been drawn with broad comic irreverence, but the underlying notion that fictional characters would believe they were going somewhere after death was sacrosanct.
Acceptance of the hereafter as a narrative conceit has long been taken for granted as the price of admission to prime time. From “Highway to Heaven” in the 1980s to “Touched by an Angel” in the 1990s, and even the oddly pious “Lost” series finale in 2010, a particular form of celestially-certain therapeutic deism has reigned. Specific religiosity may be rare on network television, but heaven is for real.
So it came as something of a shock last weekend to see another TV series call bullshit on the whole heaven affair. In an attention-grabbing twist, “The Good Wife” recently killed off one of its main characters, attorney Will Gardner, and is apparently using the rest of the season to show how such a sudden and irrevocable loss is dealt with by other characters, particularly his old friend, legal sparring partner, and star-crossed lover Alicia Florrick.
This was atheism in the foxhole: unbelief enduring at a moment when many might assume it would crumble.
It has been gripping, not least of all because it has provided the show with a whole new pallet of emotions to exploit. As news of Will’s death by a stray bullet in a courtroom shootout spreads, the most cynical lawyer at the firm allows himself a convulsive instant of sorrow all the more heartbreaking because it is so brief. For others, time seems to slow down, making the mundane surreal. Savvy operators never without a next move confess, “I don’t know what to do” in a way that feels true to the paralysis of grief.
But what has been most striking — and, I would argue, what makes this turn of events quietly significant for both network television and American religion — is the obvious, convention-breaking disdain Alicia displays for the possibility that the idea of heaven could offer the slightest bit of comfort.
The moment comes ten minutes before the episode’s end, when Alicia’s teenaged daughter Grace, a Christian despite her family’s lack of affiliation with any faith, attempts to console her mother. “I know you don’t believe it,” she says, “but he’s with God.”
“What does that mean, Grace?” Alicia asks. “He’s in heaven, with angels and clouds?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think you can really picture it.”
“But you believe it? Why do you think Will is in heaven?”
“He was a good person, wasn’t he?”
There’s the rub. From the beginning, the real strength of “The Good Wife” has been its ongoing complication of the idea of what it means to be good. One looks in vain for a character not ethically compromised or morally gray. And anyway, Alicia tells her daughter, goodness here is beside the point. Will’s death was “just some stupid accident,” a meaningless event that affirms her lack of belief in God.
“What does it mean if there is no God?” Grace asks. “Why is it any better?”
“It’s not better,” Alicia replies. “It’s just truer. It’s not just wishful thinking.”
Has there ever been another time on a network television show when a major and wholly sympathetic character dismisses with such finality a religious response to tragedy embraced by so many? Alicia had already described herself as atheist last season, but this was something different. This was atheism in the foxhole: unbelief enduring at a moment when many might assume it would crumble.
Despite what polls say about the public’s stubbornly low opinion of atheists, the court of pop culture seems to be issuing a different verdict.
Grace gets the disagreement’s last word (“Maybe always believing the bad, maybe that’s wishful thinking too”), but what was most unexpected about the exchange was that there was apparently no assumption or concern on the writers’ part that Alicia’s rejection of otherworldly comfort, and her stoic unwillingness to smile and nod at her daughter’s own convictions, would adversely affect the audience’s feelings toward the character. Despite what polls say about the public’s stubbornly low opinion of atheists, the court of pop culture seems to be issuing a different verdict.
It could be that “The Good Wife” is an aberration, that this is not a turning of the tide toward doubt as the default in mass entertainment. Yet just the night before that episode aired, the comedian Louis CK delivered a “Saturday Night Live” monologue that gently pummeled heaven within an inch of its life. His touch was so light it was easy to miss that he was applying a submission hold.
“Do you guys think there’s a heaven?” he asked the SNL studio audience. “Clap if you think you’re going to heaven.”
More than two-thirds of Americans believe in an afterlife, and about that percentage of Louie’s audience seemed to applaud. No sooner had he coaxed them into admitting they think they’re going to heaven, however, than he pulled the rug out from under them by tweaking their assumptions about what life after death might mean.
“You die, and you’re like, ‘Hey God!’ And he’s like, ‘Yep?’ And you’re like, ‘Where’s heaven?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t know who’s telling people that! I’m supposed to make a universe and then another whole amazing place for afterwards?! You guys are greedy dicks down there!’”
Even those who had clapped to claim their place on high howled with laughter.
Not too long ago, in a television landscape overpopulated with angels, either one of these moments would have been unimaginable. Yet in one otherwise unremarkable weekend, religious concerns were shown to be as serious, as conflicted, and as open to unsentimental humor on television as they are in life off the screen. Whether this was just a blip on the radar or the start of a trend, TV’s use of heaven — as hope, as illusion, as idea — just got a lot more interesting.