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Heavenly bodies: how the bureaucrats of the afterlife took over TV

Luke Walpole
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Disney</span>
Photograph: Disney

This article contains spoilers about The Good Place.

In the first glimpse of Loki, Marvel’s upcoming TV series for Disney+, Tom Hiddleston’s god of mischief is shepherded through a Soviet-esque tower block and asked by a nonplussed attendant to sign off every word he has ever spoken. With crisp haircuts and drab suits, the workers of the Time Variance Authority look much the same as the agents in the 2011 film The Adjustment Bureau and have a similar purpose: to make sure what is supposed to happen happens.

Of course, this being a comic book world (following directly from Avengers: Infinity War) – and considering Marvel’s purposeful strides towards a multiverse – the show will probably bring a flash more colour to these serious surroundings. Yet it is a setup very much at home in a cultural landscape that has become transfixed by celestial bureaucracy and the idea that the ethereal is deeply boring.

It is not a new idea. As Meghan Gilbride discussed in the Los Angeles Review of Books, it rippled through classical culture and was prevalent in China during the Tang dynasty, often considered a golden age of cosmopolitanism, more than 1,400 years ago. The Tang rulers tied themselves closely to Taoist cosmology – even claiming to be descendents of Lao Tzu, the creed’s probably mystical foundational author – which holds that a supreme god-like figure presides over a hierarchy of deities, like a CEO or cabinet minister. In part reflecting the multilayered bureaucracy of imperial China, every major deity beneath has a ministry and a strict remit, with domestic gods working beneath them. In fact, the workers of the Time Variance Authority might as well be the civil servants working in the Taoist ministry of time, one of the primary ministries in the pantheon.

Pu Songling’s 18th-century work Liaozhai Zhiyi (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio) captures some of this bureaucracy in vivid, peculiar ways. In part crafted as an attack on feudalism and the box-ticking bureaucracy of the state education system, it features people who witness the afterlife due to a clerical error. If that sounds familiar, it may be because this was almost exactly the conceit of Michael Schur’s sitcom The Good Place.

Indeed, The Good Place provided a the paradigmatic example of a deeply bureaucratic afterlife, in which humans were assigned to the Good Place or the Bad Place depending on how they had lived their lives on earth. Humans either gained or lost points based on the relative “goodness” of their deeds. This may sound like a show that had Catholic guilt and the necessity of “good deeds” etched into its worldview, but the bureaucratic machinery of the afterlife Schur created was closer to a reflection of Taoist mythology.

The first season’s about turn, which proved that the Good Place our lead characters inhabited was in fact the Bad Place with a cheery facelift, spoke to a tired institutional machine, full of bored workers seeking to spice up their eternal being with a new gimmick. But, as the show progressed, it became clear that Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani were dealing with not just bureaucratic inertia, but also institutional decay. Life on Earth had become so complex, so full of negative, unintended consequences, that it was impossible to reach the Good Place through good deeds alone – and there simply wasn’t the institutional machinery to cope with this changing world.

The sense that our political institutions are not equipped for the problems facing 21st-century society is not uncommon. As such, a degree of transference from the real world to the eternal is unsurprising. As Nancy Park wrote in the Journal of Asian Studies, 18th-century commentators “believed corruption to be a ubiquitous and serious problem within the imperial Chinese state”. It was in this maelstrom that Pu wrote Liaozhai Zhiyi. His folk tales shouldn’t be taken solely as an analogue of the world he was living in, but they do show the repeated urge to make the heavenly more realistic and reflective of temporal issues.

As with The Good Place, we have seen this realism transposed on to the drab dynamics that define the 9-5 office setting. Miracle Workers, starring Daniel Radcliffe, depicts God (Steve Buscemi) as the washed-up CEO of Heaven Inc, while the Amazon adaptation of Good Omens elevated the role of the archangel Gabriel (Jon Hamm) to an officious line manager. The main antagonist in Pixar’s Soul was similarly a stickler for the rules, with the whole setup confirming that souls need to meet a set of criteria to gain cognisance on Earth. These shows press against the constraints of predetermination, yet operate within a bureaucratic machine.

Clearly, there is something comical about contrasting the divine with the mundane. While TV and film may not be able to grapple definitively with the metaphysics of life after death, what they can do is look at it prosaically. When they do so, it becomes apparent that processing millions of souls a day, or maintaining a secure timeline while the god of mischief lives up to his name, would be a logistical nightmare.