In an era when the first response to any disagreement is to demonize the opposition — they’re not merely wrong, they’re evil — it shouldn’t come as a surprise that so many popular TV shows feature demons. But these aren’t your standard-issue Hollywood demons: they don’t spin heads and spew pea soup. The fictional demon-du-jour is more of a demon-next-door in a trio of hit shows — ABC’s The Good Place, Netflix’s Lucifer and Amazon/BBC’s Good Omens — that present evildoers we can appreciate by casting them as neighbours, co-workers and friends.
On paper, not one of these shows looks like a hit. The Good Place builds many a plot out of the moral reasoning problems that put countless undergrads to sleep. Meanwhile, Lucifer and Good Omens require some knowledge of the Bible and Freud to get the jokes. All of that sounds a little too much like homework to qualify as entertainment.
But what these comedies do exceptionally well is use supposedly evil characters as a metaphor. The demons — and just who the real demons are is up for debate — represent all those people whose views and values we don’t like. Then the writers take us on playful adventures to see what happens when the virtuous “us” are forced to work with the oh-so-hypocritical “them.”
The Good Place opens with a hilariously unrepentant misanthrope named Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, who arrives in the afterlife following a ridiculous accident. The self-described “dirtbag” meets Michael, a silver-haired dandy in a bow tie, played by a charming Ted Danson. He tells her he is the architect of this neighbourhood in “the Good Place,” the show’s all-inclusive term for heaven, and she made the cut due to her long resumé of good deeds on Earth.
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Eleanor deduces there’s been a bureaucratic snafu: she knows she’s a horrible human being. Assuming the amiable Michael is the sort of dim-witted middle manager she manipulated on Earth, she begins scheming to outwit him and avoid relocation to “the Bad Place.” She enlists the help of another recent arrival, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who was a moral philosophy professor in his previous life. He’s a neurotic bumbler, but he thinks that if he teaches Eleanor a little ethics she might be able to pass as good, or at least good enough to avoid hell. Hijinks ensue.
Eleanor and Chidi are joined by a narcissistic socialite and a petty criminal, and these four soon discover that Michael is really a demon who designed this artificial reality so they could torture each other just by being themselves.
The charm of the sitcom, aside from the clever writing, is watching these natural enemies become allies and then unlikely friends. By every measure — from race and class to education and intelligence — the four heroes are natural combatants in the culture wars. But as the satire progresses and the characters’ backstories are revealed, it becomes easier for them (and us) to feel compassion for this motley crew.
As he watches the humans learning to be better people, even the cheerfully immoral Michael develops a conscience. Inspired, the demon defects from the Bad Place to join them on the moral-improvement campaign to get into the real Good Place. More hijinks ensue.
Good Omens, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, is an over-the-top romp that tells the tale of an unlikely friendship between Crowley, a demon played by a hilarious, scenery-chewing David Tennant, and Aziraphale, a slightly more restrained angel played by Michael Sheen.
They’re both sent to Earth by their respective head offices to influence human affairs. But over millennia they become pals, often sharing work to save time in striking an earthly balance between good and evil. Eventually, they come to appreciate each other’s talents. And they share a growing fondness for Earth. When faced with a long-predicted Armageddon, they decide to defy their bosses and join forces to save the world. Impossibly complicated plot twists follow, but in the end, friendship saves the day.
In a meta-moment, this parody of extremist views became part of the real culture wars as critics argued that the show was little more than a sop to the politically correct. Among the grievances: actress Frances McDormand (a woman!) played the voice of God; Crowley and Aziraphale’s bromance was seen as a queer pairing; and traditionalists were outraged when Pollution replaced Pestilence as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Let’s just say the satire isn’t subtle.
But if there’s any show in this trio that cultivates a little sympathy for the devil, it’s Lucifer. The series, which will have a fifth and final season on Netflix this year, is based on another Neil Gaiman comic book, The Sandman.
The premise of Lucifer is that the devil’s behaviour is the result of his deeply dysfunctional family, but even he can be redeemed with patience, compassion and a lot of therapy.
In this version of the devil-next-door, Lucifer is bored with ruling hell so he moves to Los Angeles, a party town where he can carouse to his heart’s content. But even partying gets dull. So when the cops come calling on a murder investigation, he helps out, using his gift for persuading humans to reveal their deepest desires.
British actor Tom Ellis plays Lucifer Morningstar as a latter-day Cary Grant — all elegant charm, tailored suits and quick wit. But he’s also annoying. Particularly when whining to his therapist about how humanity has wronged him by blaming their worst deeds on the devil.
Is being virtuous different from merely giving the appearance of virtue?
This version of Satan turns him into the sort of narcissist who personifies every hot-button issue in daily life. He’s that awful employee with no respect for the dress code; he arrives at a crime scene straight from a three-day party. He’s the #MeToo guy in the office, lobbing double-entendres at the prim female detective forced to work with him. He drinks on the job. He’s promiscuous. And, as he’s a magical being who is irresistible to humans, can the men and women he seduces really be said to be consenting? Name a sacred cow: Lucifer barbecues it.
But over the course of the show, Lucifer grows increasingly sympathetic as he develops a conscience, while still indulging his wild ways. He begins to reconcile with his self-righteous celestial family. He makes friends. He’s kind to his enemies. And after he finally finds the love of his eternal life, he sacrifices his own happiness to save humanity.
He’s a devil, yes, but it’s hard to argue he’s evil.
At their core, these comedies all examine what it means to be good in the sense of being truly moral. And they do it partly by exploring a question: is being virtuous different from merely giving the appearance of virtue? Only The Good Place arrives at something like a definitive answer when Michael suggests that it doesn’t matter much whether people are good or bad: “What matters is whether they’re trying to be better today than yesterday.”
Maybe that’s true. At least, it’s worth thinking about. So, consider all three shows shame-free binge-watching: you can tell your inner critic it’s not merely entertainment — you’re contemplating how to be a better person.
This essay first appeared in Broadview’s March 2020 issue with the title “Sympathy for the devil.”
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