In a television landscape that includes three different incarnations of AMC’s The Walking Dead at any given moment, and where The CW’s Supernatural ran for 15 seasons, it’s a rare thing to find a show that’s optimistic about death—or anything that might come after it. Even NBC’s The Good Place, one of the best series in recent memory about the hard work of faith and belief, also featured literal demons, thorny questions of moral philosophy, and the uncomfortable idea that any sort of afterlife necessarily becomes a kind of hell on a long enough timeline.
Perhaps this is why the CBS comedy Ghosts feels like such a necessary breath of fresh air. The series offers viewers a kinder, gentler version of the afterlife, one where our stories don’t necessarily end when we die, and in which we’re not doomed to be the worst versions of ourselves forever. In this world, we’re given the chance to not only atone for the things we did wrong, but grow from those mistakes, and only “cross over” (or “get sucked off” in the parlance of the show) when we’ve answered for our unfinished business—and maybe made some friends along the way.
In the most basic sense, the series follows young marrieds Samantha (Rose McIver) and Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who inherit a Victorian-era estate in upstate New York upon the death of her aunt. While visiting it, Sam falls down a flight of stairs and when she wakes up after a three-week coma, she suddenly finds herself with the ability to see the spirits of those who have died on the property. Some are former residents of the house itself, some lived well before it was ever built, and still others were there before the country it exists in was ever formed.
The eponymous ghosts include Thorfinn (Devan Chandler), a Viking struck by lightning; Sasappis (Roman Zaragoza), a storyteller from the Lenape nation; Isaac (Brandon Scott Jones), a Revolutionary War officer who knew Alexander Hamilton; Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky), Sam’s ancestor and the original inhabitant of the house; Alberta (Danielle Pinnock) a Jazz Age singer; hippie Flower (Sheila Carrasco), Boy Scout leader Pete (Richie Moriarty); and Wall Street bro Trevor (Asher Grodman), who, for reasons the show reveals later, is forever without pants.
As Sam and Jay work to turn the house into a bed and breakfast, they—and we—get to know their new supernatural housemates, form genuine relationships with all of them, and learn about their stories. And though Jay cannot see the ghosts himself, he is surprisingly welcoming toward them from the series’ first episode. He thinks living in a haunted house is kind of cool rather than terrifying, and even tries to watch sports and play Dungeons and Dragons with several spirits. Perhaps more importantly, Jay never belittles Sam, assumes she is crazy, or gets jealous about her ability to see the dead, because Jay is a total Wife Guy and the sort of fantastic all-around partner that men everywhere would do well to emulate.
The rare American remake that’s just as good as the British comedy whose bones it’s gleefully copying, the CBS version of Ghosts still manages to put its own unique stamp and a distinctly American spin on the original premise. The squad of creepy ghosts that haunt the basement are victims of cholera rather than the plague, and characters like Sas, Isaac, and Thorfinn reflect the specific history of North America rather than England’s. There’s plenty of room for silly jokes alongside genuine historical context and a sly lampooning of some of the more blinkered thinking of some of the house’s long-dead residents—Hetty’s uncomfortable comments about the Irish, for example—but their dated and/or uncomfortable views are almost always presented as the product of ignorance rather than spite or cruelty.
Humorous and warm-hearted down to the ground, Ghosts isn’t a horror story or an existential cautionary tale about the frailty of human existence. (Even the hell in this world is reserved only for the most truly unrepentant of souls.) Instead, it’s a happy reminder of the innate goodness and potential that’s present in every person across each generation and all of humanity. And it lands on our screens every week like nothing so much as a warm hug. In a different world—or perhaps on a streaming network—Ghosts would have likely been something much darker and more frightening: the dead would be set directly at odds with their living housemates (think Beetlejuice or The Haunting of Hill House) or we would have had to spend half the first season watching Sam question her sanity for seeing them in the first place. But that’s the furthest thing from what happens here.
In many ways, perhaps there was no better time for a show like Ghosts to arrive than right now, two-plus years into a global pandemic and with much of our modern-day society seemingly angrier and more polarized than ever before. A show about death that’s primarily concerned with teaching us how to live, Ghosts is, at its heart, a story of friendship and found family, one that stresses the value of being seen for who you truly are. In this show’s world, even the most firmly set beliefs can change, the most determined adversaries can come to care for one another, and problems are best solved not by fighting, but by working together.
Issac, for example, is not only coming to terms with the sexual orientation that would have seen him shunned while he was alive, but realizing that he has feelings for Nigel, the British officer he shot during the Revolutionary War. Gilded Age-era Hetty is slowly embracing more modern ideas of feminism and equality, of the sort that would have likely seen her at least divorced, if not outright committed to an asylum during her lifetime as a “hysteria” patient. Thor, the formerly violent Viking, is working through centuries of trauma in therapy. And even the house’s most-brotastic resident, Trevor, contains shockingly kind hidden depths.
In a television era that tends to favor dark, edgy programming with no easy answers to the problems our world faces, there’s something to be said for the warm and sunny optimism of Ghosts and other comedies of its ilk (We see you, Abbott Elementary!) After all, one of the first steps toward creating real change is simply believing that it’s possible. And Ghosts makes it easy to want to believe.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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