On TV, Heaven Is A Place Of Work

Shows like "Miracle Workers" and "The Good Place" set the afterlife in the office. What hath capitalism wrought?
Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) and Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan), two angels toiling away on "Miracle Workers."
Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) and Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan), two angels toiling away on "Miracle Workers."

When author Simon Rich was dreaming up his vision of the afterlife for his novel What in God’s Name? he wanted to create something that matched the chaos he saw on Earth. 

“The very first line about humanity in the Bible is ‘So God created man in his own image,’” Rich told HuffPost. “So [if] the implication is that man is a lot like God ... then that logically means that God is a lot like man.”

In life, Rich said, things rarely unfold with maximum efficiency or logic. “And so I thought, you know, one potential explanation for that would be that things were rotten at the top,” he said.

What’s the embodiment of a shoddily run entity where incompetency rises through the ranks? For him, that was a corporate office.

And now, the Heaven Inc. he envisioned in print is on-screen, thanks to TBS’ limited series “Miracle Workers.” The adaptation of Rich’s novel positions the afterlife as a poorly organized office, complete with myriad tangles of departments and paperwork, all led by a lazy, frustrated God (Steve Buscemi) who has decided he’s fed up with the whole operation. That is, he plans to blow up Earth if two angels in the department of answered prayers can’t prove that seemingly unfathomable miracles are possible. 

“The first image that popped into my mind was a towering inbox full of unanswered prayers gathering dust on God’s desk,” Rich said. “After that, it was just a matter of filling in the blanks.” He said the visuals of the show were inspired by Soviet industrial complexes and that actual trash was repurposed for props — just another reflection that maybe this place isn’t going to match with idyllic visions of pearly gates and white robes.

The premise recalls another afterlife sitcom on the air: “The Good Place,” which posits a universe where infinite number crunchers calculate the fate of each individual based on their actions during their life. Demons shuffle to their desks with a cup of antimatter from the office kitchen while heavenly residents chair inefficient boards that take thousands of years to solve problems.

The concept of an afterlife populated by cubicles and collared shirts isn’t just a byproduct of streamable television. On-screen scenarios like “mundane afterlife” and “celestial bureaucracy” are common enough to have earned their own pages on TVTropes. “The Good Place” and “Miracle Workers” are part of a current trend of afterlife shows, including Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” that use different structures of the hereafter to ask big moral questions. But it’s clear there’s something appealing — or at least logical — in depicting the afterlife as the pinnacle of tedium and toil.

Just another chaotic office birthday party on "The Good Place."
Just another chaotic office birthday party on "The Good Place."

Office tedium is relatable and ripe for the kind of quirky humor that excels in the land of sad desk salads and malfunctioning printers. It’s the butt of jokes in countless films and TV shows — “The Office,” obviously, as well as “Office Space” and the newer “Corporate,” among others. When placing the typical workplace comedy framework on something as unimaginable as the afterlife, it becomes a graspable concept. People might picture heaven in innumerable ways, but Heaven Inc. conjures a specific kind of file-cabineted and fluorescent-lit environment.

And the incongruity of an office heaven makes it interesting TV. Various religions claim to know what an afterlife looks like, it’s still anyone’s guess what happens (though we all know Doug Forcett was pretty close). But even if we were to agree that heaven resembles a place on Earth, few would position it at work.

“I’ve never heard of anyone being like, ‘Well, I’m a plumber in this life, and I’ll be a plumber in the next life. I can’t wait to unclog those heavenly pipes,’” said Kathryn Reklis, an associate professor of modern Protestant theology at Fordham University. “I don’t think that’s part of people’s popular imagination or a part of a theological imagination, that something about our economic order of things is going to continue over into the next life.”

Putting the denizens of the afterlife to work made sense, Rich said, as his version of God “needs all the help he can get.”  

On a TV show, characters need a problem to solve — and an oppressive workplace is a perfect foil to the do-gooder characters on “Miracle Workers,” including Daniel Radcliffe’s Craig and Geraldine Viswanathan’s Eliza. The problem is clear when newcomer Eliza finds Craig in the vastly understaffed department of unanswered prayers, eking out progress by fulfilling minor pleas to find lost keys or gloves. Eliza wants to tackle the big stuff — stopping a drought, facilitating true love — but Craig cautions her against thinking too big, telling her to shuffle any “impossible” prayers up to the big guy himself, where they pile up untouched.

What should be a simple system is bogged down in bureaucracy and practicality, and work is offloaded at the expense of getting anything done. Any actions taken have big consequences; the drought Eliza tries to fix with a little rain triggers a deadly tsunami. It’s enough to make even the best-intentioned of angels hang up their wings.

“I think a lot of people have had the experience of working under a manager or boss who you feel like doesn’t quite have it together,” Rich said. “And then it can be a really frustrating experience, especially if you care about what you do. The characters on our show, a lot of them anyway, are really well-meaning, and they want to do the best they can, but they’re working in a system that is just really poorly run and mismanaged from the top down.”

He acknowledged it’s a pretty nihilistic way to present things but said, “My hope is that it’s a vision of the cosmos that reflects the reality we live in.”

Maybe there is a hunger for shows that try to explain the madness a little bit. Or at least, if not explain it, then at least reflect it. Simon Rich, author of “What in God’s Name?”

Perhaps workplace heavens are meant not to present a definitive look at what awaits us in the next life but to question whether the systems we’ve put in place here are working.

Let’s face it: Things feel pretty bad. The 24-hour news cycle and pop-up smartphone notifications ensure we don’t miss a single White House shenanigan, celebrity scandal or national tragedy. Bad things happen to good people. Inequality is worsening. Injustice feels rampant.

“There seems to be a common human longing to say, when things right now seem horribly unjust and we don’t feel like we have any power to do anything about it ... you’ll often get these depictions of another life to come,” said Kutter Callaway, an assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary in California.

In a way, the vision of heaven on “Miracle Workers” aligns with the general feeling, at least among generations born after 1980, that we weren’t given what we were promised. If we work hard, instead of ending up with a house and a sweet retirement like our parents, what awaits us is the uncertain gig economy, an eroding social safety net and insurmountable student debt, among other burdens. Perhaps it’s unappealing to watch a show about a perfectly run heaven simply because experience has taught us to be skeptical of anything that seems too perfect. A dysfunctional afterlife at least makes sense.

“A lot of people are feeling very defeatist, and maybe there is a hunger for shows that try to explain the madness a little bit. Or at least, if not explain it, then at least reflect it,” Rich said.

But why does the afterlife look exactly like the worst parts of the current one? In part because we can’t envision anything beyond what we already have.

“Our lives are so hemmed in by the economic order of things. We can’t really imagine anything outside of bureaucratic structures,” said Reklis. “There’s almost no part of our imaginations that are left sort of uncolonized by the demands of work and by the logic of work.” In her view, we’re so focused on “how much money we make and what we can do with money and the debt that we accrue and the burdens of debt” that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine something that doesn’t involve these systems.

Traditional religion addresses existential questions of a life after our earthly one. But it’s on the decline among Americans, especially younger generations. Couple that with the rise of hustle culture — the fact that work itself has become a major part of our cultural identity — and it’s not a surprise that we’re seeing big moral questions through the lens of the workplace. 

“There’s a sense that we lost a common language to talk about — well, to use the language of ‘The Good Place’ — what we owe to each other,” Reklis said. “Different individual people and individual traditions might still have some of that language, but it feels like we have less of it across our differences.”

“I feel like there are a lot of shows that are trying to just go back to something really simple and fundamental like that,” she said. “And they’re using these kind of fun and wild and outlandish kind of alternative universes to explore it.” 

“Miracle Workers” airs Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. on TBS.

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