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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 a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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“They are leaving at an alarming rate”: European NHS workers on the winter crisis, austerity, and Brexit’s impact

“It’s a house of cards, and we’re getting closer and closer to the point where it’s all going to collapse.”

This winter, for the first time in five years, Joan Pons Laplana, an NHS project manager and transformation nurse from Norfolk, “went back to working the front line” because his hospital “had no nurses”. As was the case in many other NHS hospitals nationwide, wards were closed, non-urgent appointments and operations cancelled, and their resources focused on A&E.

“We managed to put a plaster to stop the crisis, but now we need to catch up with the patients and operations and everything,” he says. “And that's like a catch-22.” NHS England recommends a working capacity of around 85 per cent in hospitals to absorb the winter’s patients rise, but Pons Laplana’s hospital is “constantly” working at 90 per cent, he says. “It’s a high stress environment, constantly low on resources and doctors. And now we don't have enough staff.” He sighs: “It’s getting more and more difficult to deliver safe care. At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”

Originally from Barcelona, Pons Laplana has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years. He is one of around 62,000 EU citizens who currently work for the National Health Service, according to House of Commons statistics. Amid the winter crisis and severe financial pressure, the NHS’s next big problem is already unfolding: the prospect of Brexit is driving European NHS workers away. Within England’s NHS services, EU nationals make up almost 10 per cent of doctors, more than 7 per cent of nurses and 5 per cent of scientific, therapeutic and technical staff. Almost 10,000 EU workers had already left the NHS when NHS Digital released its 2017 data last autumn.

“If none of the EU citizens were [in my hospital], I can say without any exaggeration: you could absolutely close tomorrow”, Dr Peter Bauer, 47, a consultant anaesthetist in a Brighton hospital who has worked in the NHS since 1999, tells the New Statesman. In his hospital, he says, the proportion of EU staff is “phenomenal”: “Well over 50 per cent of senior staff is European, it’s about three quarters of the people. It would be disaster.” Mary, a 37-year-old British nurse from London, says her clinic, which employs many Europeans, is struggling to find a cover for her colleague on maternity leave: “Recruitment has fallen massively since Brexit.” With the British government still unclear on citizens’ rights, it is unlikely to stop there.

The ability of competent, skilled European staff to move seamlessly to the UK from the continent, thanks to the EU's freedom of movement, has been “a boom for the NHS”, Bauer says. Recruiting elsewhere (something the NHS has already started doing) will bring additional costs, visa requirements and various other complications that freedom of movement was designed to avoid. “You need these people! If you can't recruit Europeans, you then have to go out of the EU, and it's much more costly and difficult. It's a house of cards, and we're getting closer and closer to the point where it's all going to collapse.”

“If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap.”
Peter Bauer, consultant anaesthetist, originally from Germany

Recruitment from European countries has fallen rapidly. For instance, the number of incoming EU nurses fell by 92 per cent after the referendum, contributing to a shortfall in those able to fill the 24,000 nurse vacancies in England alone.

“For the first time, we have seen a reduction in the pool of EU citizens working for the NHS, and that is critical”, says Bauer, who teaches at medical school and has observed the “mismatch of numbers” in terms of graduates – especially a lack of British graduates. “If you want to fill the increased demand with British graduates, you would have to hugely enhance the capacity of British universities to train doctors, and then you would have to put them through specialty training, and that would take decades.”  It takes “about fifteen years” to train an anaesthetist like himself. He laughs: “If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap!” Mary, the British nurse, agrees: “Come 2020, we're going to be in serious, massive crap.”

Jettie Vije, a Dutch national who works as a GP practice nurse in Norfolk, meets the “occasional old patient” wanting to discuss Brexit: “They say, ‘Isn’t it great that we’re leaving the EU?’” Vije has been in the UK for four years, which is less than the five-year threshold for settled status; so “great” may not be the best word to describe her situation “I try to keep it on the medical side and not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not”, she says. “I am here to do my job as a nurse.”

“I try not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not. I am here to do my job as a nurse.”
Jettie Vije, GP practice nurse, originally from the Netherlands

Every EU citizen in the UK knows others who have left. “On a daily basis, I can see that people are leaving”, Pons Laplana says. Portuguese workers at his hospital are “leaving at an alarming rate”. An Italian colleague of Bauer’s is applying to a job in France (“He is probably going to be gone very soon” ); another one, a Czech colleague, has gone part-time, working four weeks in Czech Republic and four in the UK. “The direction isn't for people to be drawn into the UK”, Bauer says.

Mary, the nurse from London, works with colleagues from all over Europe, from Spain and Portugal to Romania and Poland. “Just hearing the conversations they have...  They feel they're not welcome here anymore,” she says, citing one who just moved to Ireland. “Despite what we say and how much we appreciate them, it really doesn't matter” she says. “They're nervous, so a lot of them are leaving.”

The ones who stay behind aren't just losing friends and colleagues to a political decision in which they had no say. Like every Briton, they are attached to their life in the UK as they know it, and to one of its greatest pillars: their employer and health care provider, the National Health Service. As the recent winter crisis has made years of under-funding more apparent and more critical, just like Brits, they worry the NHS may not recover.

European workers have been part of the NHS and British life for years – in Bauer’s case, decades – and have witnessed different government policies. When Bauer arrived in the 1990s, Tony Blair had just taken office: “Over the first ten years, you could see how pumping money into the NHS was leading to a huge increase in the capacity”, he says. There were “more beds, more nurses and doctors”, and small things, too – like “more hand washing basins”. “As the coalition government, and then Cameron, took power, you could see how the investment was scaled back”, he adds.

The NHS is already in dire straits due to the financial pressures exacerbated by austerity. Last September, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, estimated in the Guardian that the Health Service needed an emergency investment of £200m to £350m to avoid a winter crisis. It didn’t come – and non-emergency procedures were cancelled across the country in January. That shortfall is only the start however, and by 2020, the NHS will face a £20 billion funding gap. The Conservative manifesto pledge of an extra £8bn is considered by leading health think tanks and experts to be inadequate. Inflation and demand, which Bauer says “keep rising”, are deepening the gap.

“At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”
Joan Pons Laplana, NHS project manager, originally from Spain

“When the demand is a lot higher than the funding, then there is a gap and that gap is getting wider and wider each year. That's what provoked the crisis,” says Pons Laplana, who has seen stress in his wards go “though the roof” with the pressures. “I reckon 50 of the team have been off at some point because of the stress”, says Mary, who had to take two weeks off around Christmas because she works in a department that treats life-threatening conditions and it all became too much. “We are GPs, we are counsellors, we are social workers... We're everything at the moment.” To add to the stress, the lack of funding and the nurses’ pay cap are making situations like Mary’s more precarious: she says she had to remortgage her house to pay for a £10,000 training that may allow her to be promoted. “To be able to make ends meet, a lot of the staff do extra shifts, some are working fifty hours to have the same quality of life that they had five, six, seven years ago, and pay the mortgages”, Pons Laplana explains. “But a lot of us are getting tired. Tired people make mistakes. And mistakes cost lives.”

These problems would exist without Brexit, but the decision to leave the EU will exacerbate the health services's problems in ways beyond simply driving workers away. The famed “£350m a week for the NHS” pledge wheeled out by the Leave campaign is credited with helping to win the election, but the drop in value of the pound and economic uncertainty mean that, as Bauer points out, “in actual numbers you're seeing so far a reduction of £350m a week” – less cash in the economy is likely to mean less cash for the NHS.

Mary says she is “immensely worried” about the possibility of the British government selling NHS contracts in a future US trade deal struck to make up for lost trade with the EU: “The essence of what the NHS is, care for all, that will go and the thought of that scares me to the bone.” Brexit, Bauer says, is an “unmitigated disaster”: not just because urgent issues like the NHS’ winter crisis are being overlooked by the “completely paralysed” government’s obsession with the UK’s departure from the European Union, but also because it will exacerbate such issues further. The Home Office’s tightening of migration rules will make it harder for the Health Service to hire critically needed staff, he sighs: “It's one more dimension of self-harm on Brexit.”

“EU workers are leaving at an alarming rate”
Joan Pons Laplana

For the EU citizens who are still here, the dilemma is twofold. Leave, because Brexit has made their future and right to work in this country uncertain? Or stay to see the Health Service they have put so much work in fall into pieces? “I worked very hard for three years to be in the managerial position I have,” Pons Laplana says. “If I go back, I will not have the same job. My home is here. My heart is British.” Vije doesn’t think it will come to her leaving, but until the deal is finalized, she cannot be certain: “I'm just waiting and watching.” Although Bauer doesn’t want to leave either, he has started on his contingency plan: getting German passports for his children. “I don't see a rosy economic future for them in the UK”, he says. “Britain is so divided now, the government is divided, the Tories are divided, Labour is divided, families are divided.” 

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” may work as far as the government’s negotiating strategy goes, but it also means EU workers are left in limbo. At a time when the NHS desperately needs staff, if the “really well trained, hard workers, well-educated” EU nurses and doctors to change their mind and go, they will be sorely missed, Mary says. “But then I think, what would I do?” She pauses. “Probably the same.”

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.