A lot of people turn to TV and movies to escape from serious topics. But pop culture isn’t only about escapism. Pop culture properties can also explore serious topics like death.
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Here, we explore some of the best television shows that have explored topics like death, grief, and the afterlife over the years.
Contemporary TV Shows About Death
Thanks to the proliferation of streaming services, we are in a peak era for the small screen. There are loads of TV shows and movies available to watch, many of which tackle death and death-adjacent topics. These shows that are currently airing explore these complicated and often sensitive topics in a variety of ways.
1. This Is Us
This award-winning NBC show follows a family over the course of several decades. It wrestles with several serious topics including infertility, divorce, and interracial adoption.
It’s also known for dealing with tragedy. It is revealed during the course of the show that the father of the family passes away when his children are teenagers. In the intervening years, they are shown to continue wrestling with the loss. It shows how a person’s death can reshape their family and reverberate throughout the years.
2. The Sinner
This anthology crime series has been on air for three seasons, with the fourth season currently in the works. Each season focuses on a mysterious death. The only consistent character is the police detective who investigates each case.
While the cases could be sensationalistic, the show digs into complicated emotional situations. It’s a meditation on how trauma can manifest in deadly situations. It is gripping and exciting to watch, but still incredibly thought-provoking.
3. The Good Place
When you think of existential TV shows, you don’t necessarily picture a sitcom. But this half-hour comedy set in the afterlife wrestled with major philosophical concepts, and how people look at the moral aspects of life before death.
Many of us spend our lives preoccupied with what waits for us after we die. This show offers a funny, spiky take on the premise.
4. The Walking Dead
Zombies have been a part of pop culture for decades. Zombie movies increased in prevalence in the 1960s after the success of Night of the Living Dead. But the first zombie movie, White Zombie was released all the way back in 1932.
It wasn’t until The Walking Dead debuted in 2010 that this genre was explored in-depth on television. Originally based on a comic book series, The Walking Dead could have been a straightforward horror-gore show.
Instead, it explores the difficulty of survival in a post-apocalyptic society. And it deals with the emotional challenges of deceased loved ones coming back as mindless monsters. If anything, this show will make you feel better about how sedate death is in the real world.
Jim Carrey is a talented actor who has managed to balance comedy and drama in many film roles. He has now brought his skills to the small screen in this Showtime tragicomedy which recently wrapped up its second season. In the show, Carrey portrays Jeff Piccirillo, also known as Jeff Pickles. He has starred on a long-running children’s show called Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time.
When the show begins, Jeff is still mourning the death of one of his twin sons a year after his death. He wants to make a show about death, but his producer doesn’t want him to tarnish his image. In the meantime, he must also deal with the dissolution of his marriage.
This show depicts how destructive death can be to those who are left behind. It also touches on the performative nature of grieving. We often feel forced to put on masks so we don’t make other people uncomfortable lest they witness our pain.
Comedy writer and producer Greg Daniels is probably best known for his work on The Office and Parks and Recreation. He brings the same satirical sensibility to a new Amazon Prime series called Upload.
In the near future, humans are able to upload their consciousness into a virtual afterlife of their choosing. But, much like in real life, premium features cost extra. It’s an interesting meditation on the commoditization of death.
Old-School TV Shows About Death
TV shows about death aren’t new. Over the past several decades, many shows have delved into death and the afterlife. Here are some of our favorite old-time shows and recent classics that talk about those topics.
7. Six Feet Under
This critically-acclaimed dark comedy focused on a family-run funeral home. Each episode opened with someone dying, often in comically ironic ways. The show also featured faux commercials for products like embalming fluid and wound filler.
The show opened with the death of the family patriarch and follows his family as they try to navigate their complicated dynamics. Setting it in a funeral home created an interesting juxtaposition. For these characters, it was easy to be matter-of-fact about death as it was the family business. When they were personally touched by death, they realized how much it fractured them.
8. Dead Like Me
This dark comedy about death was on Showtime, while Six Feet Under aired on HBO — both on-air in the early 2000s. It seems that pay cable channels were more willing to gamble on shows that deal with the dark subject matter in a sometimes-humorous fashion. In this show, an 18-year old girl named George dies ignominiously when she is struck by a toilet seat falling from a spacecraft.
But instead of moving on to the afterlife, she must instead become a reaper, helping other departed souls move on. A lot of the humor comes from being a young adult with a (literally) soul-sucking job. But there is also pathos as she mourns for the life she’ll never get to lead and the family she can no longer have contact with. It is surprisingly moving and nuanced.
9. Sorry For Your Loss
This show isn’t what you traditionally think of when you imagine watching TV. It was a web series that aired on Facebook Watch for two seasons. But it was anchored by a transformative performance by award-winning actress Elizabeth Olsen. The show follows a woman in her twenties who is reeling after the sudden and unexpected death of her husband.
This is a more straightforward drama than some of the others on our list. But it deals with an important topic. Not a lot of shows follow young widows or widowers. So this show provides an insight into an underrepresented demographic. Sadly, like the lead character’s husband, this series was recently killed off before its time.
10. Pushing Daisies
Bryan Fuller, the producer of the aforementioned Dead Like Me and other dark shows like Hannibal, left that show due to creative differences with the network. But he wasn’t done with exploring death in a manner that was often darkly comedic.
Pushing Daisies starred Lee Pace as a pie-maker who has the ability to bring dead people back to life by touching them. Unfortunately, if he touches them again, they die permanently. He resurrects his childhood sweetheart and they fall in love even though they can never touch each other.
This show has plenty of bittersweet moments. Even though death can be undone, it is not without consequence. But it’s an interesting premise, and the quirky set design and musical numbers make it fun to watch.
11. Go On
This underrated show was canceled after just one season. People might not have been ready to see Matthew Perry, beloved from his show Friends, as an acerbic widower.
In the show, Perry’s character is forced by his boss into attending a grief support group if he wants to come back to work. The support group is filled with an eclectic cast of supporting actors, many of whom are portrayed by comedians. While the show is funny, it also provides a raw and unflinching look at people who are grieving. It also emphasizes the importance of finding a community, no matter how unlikely its members may be.
12. Time of Death
This is the third Showtime show on this list, but it’s the first nonfiction show. This eight-episode series followed several terminally ill people as they approached the end of their life.
You get to hear their stories and see how their impending death affects their friends and family members. You also get to meet the healthcare and hospice workers that help them transition into death. It’s a lovely and moving look at the fleetingness of life.
Exploring Topics Like Death and Grief Via Pop Culture Properties
And we can even pick up the remote control to get exposed to new perspectives on death. Thought-provoking TV shows can really get into serious subjects in new and innovative ways. Check out some of the shows on this list to help you learn more about how to process death in an emotionally safe way.