How Hollywood Is Updating the Afterlife for a Wired, More Secular Generation (Guest Blog)

“Death is definitely having a moment,” a therapist says of the current rash of death- and afterlife-themed entertainment

Last Updated: April 19, 2019 @ 11:41 AM

It seems that every other show these days is dealing with the afterlife. But the current crop is not about the needy awaiting miraculous help from those seeking their wings. Today’s creators are appealing to the wary, wireless generation, hoping they can help themselves, and others, before it is too late. Call it the Desired Deathographic.

And it seems to be working. Those who should be more concerned with beginnings than endings, may be tuning in to see favorite performers like Daniel Radcliffe, Maya Rudolph and Natasha Lyonne, but they are staying for the touch of proactive spiritualism. God, in various guises, may play a role, but this is not about religion, per se. At least not the traditional kind.

“We have the social media component, [which] has become our own sense of worship, or self-worship,” says Bryan Wynbrandt, one of the creators of CBS’ “God Friended Me,” which features a millennial cast whose main character is a podcaster who receives his messages from an account called “God” via social media. “Religion acts as a community-unifying force, as does social media. And so, for us, combining those two elements create a very contemporary and interesting conversation.”

That show is one of Hollywood’s most digitally savvy takes on what may be happening on high, (though the show takes place firmly in the here and now). But there are so many others. TBS’ “Miracle Workers,” with Radcliffe and Steve Buscemi, is described as a “heaven-set workplace comedy.” On Amazon Prime’s “Forever,” Rudolph and Fred Armisen end up, well, up there — and have to decide if their relationship can endure eternity. “Russian Doll,” on Netflix, has a “Groundhog Day” angle. On NBC, Ted Danson and Kristen Bell continue to spar in a secular hell (and heaven) on “The Good Place.” Next up: Amazon’s “Upload,” in which characters can choose their own post-death experience in a virtual world. On the big screen, Danny Boyle’s coming film, “Yesterday,” deals with a songwriter who is hit by a bus and ends up in an alternative universe.

What exactly is going on down here? Why so much interest in a possibly better life beyond this one?

There is the disconnectedness of the connected generation. There is also the unavoidable 24-hour political anguish and partisanship. “Right now the world is divided, not just on a religious level but on a humanity level, on a sociological level…right versus left… and it’s not just our country,” says Steven Lilien, Wynbrandt’s creative partner on “God Friended Me.”

Millennials, especially, face the challenges of economic uncertainty, lack of privacy, gun violence and climate change. As William Schmidt Boger, a recent graduate of USC, says, global warming “causes a rising sense of hopelessness and disillusionment with reality. … Even if we choose to live life, it is going to be exponentially harder.”

He is not alone in his sentiments. But judging by their viewing and listening habits, many of his generation (and perhaps those even younger) are genuinely interested in exploring an often-taboo subject. Take 17-year-old songwriter Billie Eilish, one of the hottest young singers of Gen Z. Her hit album is entitled, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” (a haunting question about our post-waking or post-death hours), and her morbid songs, such as “bury a friend,” are anything but upbeat or lively.

“Death is definitely having a moment,” says Dr. Jordana Jacobs, a 31-year old New York therapist whose practice focuses on how awareness of death can help young couples love more fully. “Due to social media, our intense consumer culture, and the restructuring of family norms, there is an intense search for meaning.”

To her point, there are now death salons and retreats. “Death Over Dinner,” created by 42-year old author Michael Hebb, offers a guide for families to discuss the subject at the dinner table. Some discussions are so popular, shall we say, it’s hard to get a table.

As for Hollywood, there have, of course, been numerous films over the decades on the subject of dying and the afterlife. But they did not necessarily aim to catch a moment, and they tended to go straight for the tears, or the fears. (Think “Ghost,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “The Sixth Sense.”) The current endeavors elicit some of those sentiments, but add a sense of self-awareness, cynicism and yes, laughter. Even God, twice embodied by Morgan Freeman (who also hosts a show on National Geographic Channel about that omnipotent deity) may now appear Dude-like, as portrayed by Steve Buscemi on “Miracle Workers.”

Humor, no doubt, can ease the pain of the saddest of subjects. And here, non-millennials share some well-deserved wit.

For example, the late former first lady Barbara Bush (the subject of a new biography) was asked by historian Jon Meacham if she wanted to know what would be in her eulogy. “No,” she said, “but I’ll be watching.” Arnold Margolin, a creator of “Love, American Style,” wrote a play called “Leap,” about a washed-up sitcom writer saved by a young representative of Satan, offering to buy his soul. Margolin says, “the writer can’t believe he still has a soul to be bought, after all the selling-out he did in Hollywood.”

And when “Ordinary People” screenwriter Alvin Sargent was asked what he wanted on his tombstone, he famously replied, “Finally, a plot!”