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Morality TV: why characters on screen are more anxious, guilty and self-hating than ever

From Search Party and The Good Place to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Bojack Horseman, characters are more concerned with their status as good or bad people than ever before.

The second season of Search Party (spoilers ahead for season one) begins in the moments immediately after an act of terrible, irreversible violence. A man is dead, thanks to our anti-heroine Dory, her boyfriend Drew, and her friends Portia and Elliott. What do they do now? “Good people would call the police,” Drew insists. They do not call the police. The season tumbles down the rabbit hole of their own making, as they try to cover up what they’ve done. But the greater challenge for all four characters is living with their own guilt and shame.

I’ve never committed a murder. But throughout Search Party’s dark, painful, hilarious, anxiety-inducing second season, I identified so disproportionately with Dory, Drew, Elliott and Portia that their predicaments gave me nausea. I willed for them to do the right thing as each made worse and worse decisions. Against my better judgement I prayed they’d evade exposure. When Elliot screeches, “I’m so ashamed!” or Portia whispers to her only confident, “I’m so scared that you’re going to think I’m bad,” I felt I’d been there.

I think, for me, it all started with Roald Dahl’s The Twits. I remember reading it as a child and coming across the book’s most memorable page, complete with Quentin Blake illustrations of a dark-haired, skinny woman getting spottier and messier and grumpier. “If a person has ugly thoughts,” Dahl explains, “It begins to show on their face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until it gets so ugly you can hardly bear to look at it.” Beneath it was a drawing of a blonde, smiling, fat woman with wonky teeth. “A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly.”

This is often quoted as a sweet, touching passage that reminds children and adults alike of the importance of inner beauty. When I read it, shame crept up the back of my neck. I had ugly thoughts. Every day, every week, every year. I already looked more like the dark-haired girl than the happy blonde woman, and soon I would be truly ugly – and worse, everyone would know why. They’d see my ugly thoughts, and they’d know I was bad inside.

Search Party isn’t the only show full of questionable, anxious, self-loathing characters agonising over their own moral status. The Good Place offers us a vision of heaven and hell – The Good Place and The Bad Place – and forces its characters to reflect with panic over where they belong based on their past actions. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca cuts herself off from those who have known her at her worst and relocates from New York to California with dreams of being a sunnier, better person – but struggles to hide a shameful secret and remains, in her own words, “a horrible, stupid, dumb and ugly, fat and stupid, simple, self-hating bitch”. Bojack Horseman’s title character is in possession of a particularly violent self-flagellating inner monologue that in no way helps him to improve himself. Of course, morally ambiguous characters, presentations of guilt, and questions of personal ethics have persisted in fiction since the dawn of time – but TV, especially TV comedy, feels infused with a reflexive anxiety that feels more intense than ever, and somehow reflective of our larger cultural and political concerns.

Unlike most anxious Roald Dahl-reading five-year-olds, the majority of adults probably consider themselves too wise for reductive moral binaries, to have slowly built an internal ethical framework that is both more developed, and more nuanced. But that doesn’t stop us wondering whether we are “good” or “bad” people – a question that Bojack Horseman, Rebecca Bunch, Eleanor Shellstrop and the Search Party gang return to, either in monologues or compulsive conversation, at least once an episode. In my own mind, the smallest thing can flick the question into momentum and send it spiralling down levels of my brain: I remember everything, from something carelessly mean I said last week, to terrible things I did while drunk and young, to the times I cheated in school or was cruel to other children. I’ve gone down this hole so many times that my inner monologue has developed shortcuts. What once was a long, meandering chain of thoughts has shed unnecessary intermediary links. Now, the things I’m most ashamed of leap into my brain as soon as I experience any twinge of self-criticism.

Increasingly, we see this thought process unfurl up-close – be it in Bojack’s voiceover, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s musical soliloquies, the panicked philosophical debates of The Good Place or the defensive rows between characters in Search Party.

When we first meet the characters of Search Party, they are introduced as unequivocally horrible people. We’re thrown, contextless, into the end of an anecdote Elliott (John Early) tells over brunch, as though we are aghast eavesdroppers at a nearby table. “So, Kristine runs up to us - with, like, shards of glass literally still in her hair,” he says, eyes wide. “And she’s, like, ‘Help me flip my car over’! And I was like, ‘No, call the police.’” Portia (Meredith Hagner) chips in in a whining, bratty tone: “I felt so bad for her, but it was like, ‘You can’t bring us into your mess,’ you know?” It’s a line designed to make them seem like the absolute worst people – but it foreshadows later events, and tells us exactly what Portia, Elliot and Drew should have done in the main Search Party plot: called the police, and stayed out of Dory’s mess.

Elliot has lied about having cancer to seem like a brave victim. Portia is vain, Dory self-absorbed, Drew superior. All are entitled. But over the course of the first season, the show slowly peels back layers, until you are left with a portrait of four deeply vulnerable people emotionally ill-equipped to deal with day-to-day life.

Dory (Alia Shawkat) begins the second series in denial over the seriousness of what she’s done. After she and her friends decide to not inform the police of the murder, and instead set about hiding the body, Elliott takes on the role of the problem solver. “I need all of us to do our best to pretend that we are good, normal, non-murdering people,” he says calmly. “We’re not murderers!” Dory exclaims. “Exactly,” he shoots back, without irony. “Very good, Dor.”

Hours after burying a man in a shallow grave, all compare themselves to the worst person they know as a defence mechanism: the college acquaintance who invented an abusive boyfriend to avoid scrutiny for her actions. “Can you believe Chantal?” Dory says. “I mean, there’s something deeply, deeply disturbed about that girl.” “Thank you so much for saying that, because I feel like, as a woman, it made me so angry ‘cause it’s not okay to lie about abuse,” Portia says breathlessly. “Oh, my God, I would never lie about abuse,” Elliot adds. “And I lied about cancer.”

“Everything’s going to be OK,” Portia insists. “You know why? Because we’re good people. We’re good people.”

“And, you know, that that’s the way that we should look at it,” Dory adds. “You know? Is that we are good people who were subjected to a really unfortunate situation. And that’s all.” An unconvincing silence falls.

As the season progresses, each struggles to process their own shame in a different way. Dory is gripped by relentless paranoia. Drew becomes obsessed with fleeing the country, going to bizarre and cruel lengths to achieve his goal. Portia participates in a stage retelling of the Manson murders, insisting to her fellow cast members: “You absolutely have the susceptibility to do this, like, all of us do. I really think good, smart people have the potential to make really big mistakes.” Elliot suffers a mental breakdown. “I’m so ashamed!” he sobs.  “I’m so ashamed of the things I’ve done. I can’t pretend I don’t care anymore. I can’t. Oh, my God! I’ve done so many terrible things! I’m so, so, so, so scared! I’m so full of shit! I can’t live like this!”

All fear what will happen to them if they’re eventually exposed. In one scene, all their insecurities are spoken aloud – when they are presented with a prestigious honour for rescuing their friend – the audience blissfully unaware of the murder that took place in the process. State Senate hopeful Mary Ferguson, under a banner reading “Cappaqua Heroes”, delivers a speech about their heroism:

I get to meet a lot of people doing what I do. And I get to hear a lot of stories. Stories that move me to tears. There are people out there doing good just for the sake of doing good. They’re just trying to do the right thing, whether or not someone is watching. You know, they say “Dance like no one is watching”? Well, I say, “Do good like no one is watching.” I call people like this “closet heroes”. And every now and then, we get to wheel them out of hiding and celebrate them. So, please welcome our heroes: Elliott Goss, Portia Davenport, Drew Gardner, and Dory Sief.

A slow tracking shot closes in on Mary’s face as she celebrates them for their great deeds: it’s enough to give anybody imposter syndrome. For the closet heroes who are actually closet villains – people who have only done anything good performatively, for someone watching, who literally bury the evidence of their crimes as deep as they humanly can – it’s a guilt-inducing nightmare.

The fear and shame of the closet villain is a major element of The Good Place, a show that revolves around its characters self-definiton as “good” or “bad” people. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in heaven, congratulated for the many good deeds she did during her time on earth, knowing full well she never did any of them at all – she was a horrible person and there’s been a mix-up. We learn that every single action on earth earns or loses you points based on whether it was a good or bad deed – your score at the time of death determines your fate in The Good Place or The Bad Place. Eleanor insists that while she “wasn’t freaking Gandhi” she was “OK”: “I was a medium person”. She tries to learn how to be good, thanks to ethics teacher Chidi (William Jackson Harper).

The final episode of the first season comes with a huge twist (spoilers): the characters in The Good Place have been in The Bad Place all along. They were all condemned to hell: Eleanor because she was mean, Chidi because he was indecisive, their friend Tahani because she did good things solely to look good. The reveal left me squirming with guilt – if the nice, friendly, never deliberately cruel Chidi and Tahani were going to hell, where would that leave me?! But The Good Place ultimately presents hell as that shame and fear – the agony of pretending you’re a good person who belongs in heaven when a voice inside is telling you that you don’t.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend explores all these defensive ticks and moments of gushing self-hate through song. In one episode, Rebecca has her own closet villain moment in the song “I’m the Villain in My Own Story”: “I’m the villain in my own story / My actions have gone way too far / I told myself that I was Jasmine But I realize now I’m Jafar.”

As Rebecca’s self-destructive tendencies become more pronounced, and other characters criticise her internal ethical barometer, she sings “I’m a Good Person”: “I’m a good person, yes, it’s true / I’m a good person, better than you / I’m a good person, can’t you see? / Doctors Without Borders don’t have nothin’ on me”. The song ends with her holding a knife to a stranger’s throat: “I’m a good, such a good, real good person / Let me hear you say it too – Say it! Say it or I’ll kill your husband! I’ll do it, I’ll gut him like a fish!”

Only a few episodes later, she’s wallowing in self-aware self-loathing with the ballad “You Stupid Bitch”: “You ruined everything / You stupid, stupid bitch / You’re just a lying little bitch who ruins things and wants the world to burn / Bitch / You’re a stupid bitch / And lose some weight.” Rebecca’s greatest fear is that her new friends will see her in as harsh a light as she sees herself, and will abandon her as a result. It takes several seasons, therapy sessions, a medical diagnosis for her mental health problems, and a series of revelations from her past to make her realise that she’s neither hero or villain, and still worthy of the love and support of her friends.

The Bojack Horseman episode “Stupid Piece of Shit” opens with Bojack’s relentless internal self-criticism. “Piece of shit. Stupid piece of shit. You’re a real stupid piece of shit. But I know I’m a piece of shit. That makes me better than all the pieces of shit who don’t know they’re pieces of shit… Or is it worse?” Much as he wills himself to spend time with his daughter, be kind to his formerly abusive, now frail and confused mother, and not spend his days drunk, he seems unable to change, and chastises himself constantly for it.

A heart-to-heart between him and 17-year-old Hollyhock at the episode’s close suggests that while Bojack’s problems are extreme, they’re also universal. “Sometimes I have this tiny voice in the back of my head that goes, like, ‘Hey, everyone hates you! And they’re not wrong to feel that way!’” she says. “That voice, the one that tells you you’re worthless and stupid and ugly? It goes away, right? It’s just, like, a dumb teenage-girl thing, but then it goes away?” “Yeah,” Bojack replies, hollowly.

What makes a person “bad”? Where is the line between “a good person who has done a bad thing” just become “a bad person”? Am I a trash person in, like, a cute way? Or in a boycott and hashtags and public apologies via the Notes app kind of way? Does everyone know? Should I be ashamed of myself? Which actions or beliefs are unforgiveable? How does someone truly redeem themselves? Is remorse absolving? If I’m not actively terrible, in a time when injustice is so visible all around us, what am I actually doing to make things better? What’s the point of me? These are questions that can feel more urgent than ever (a fallacy, I’m sure, as every time seems, to those who live in it, at some moral watershed or other), especially as the consequences for those whose immoral acts are publically exposed become more lasting and more severe. Fear of exposure mounts. I say this not as a Woody Allen defender or scandalised critic of call-out culture, just as someone with a lot of (sometimes irrational) shame, and a lot of self-aggrandising fear about the people I love and respect being disappointed in or disgusted by me.

In the first season of Girls, Hannah Horvath told us: “No one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself, so any mean thing someone’s gonna think to say to me I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half hour.” Now, we watch those compulsive thoughts fly through characters’ brains at alarming yet relatable speed, as they agonise over their flaws and merits, their status as good or bad people, and their worth to others, with a new level of neurotic specificity. TV has shifted from showing us morally ambiguous characters, prompting us to muse aloud whether they’re good or bad, to giving us protagonists who ask the question of themselves, repeatedly, before we even have the chance.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
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Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (newstatesman.com/events)

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99