Show Hide image

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.