In today’s increasingly crowded and competitive TV marketplace, show creators are pushing the boundaries by producing more and more complex and high-concept TV shows. The hope is that an innovative show will push through the deluge of new shows each year to become the next mega-hit. Two new shows in the fall line-up, The Good Place (NBC) and Westworld (HBO), are clear attempts by their respective networks to garner high ratings and critical acclaim.
On their face, the two shows appear to have nothing in common. The Good Place is a wacky but earnest comedy from the creator of Parks and Recreation about a corrupt woman (played by Kristen Bell) who mistakenly gets sent to the heaven-like “good place” when she dies. Obvious comedy ensues as people discover that she does not belong in this world. Westworld is HBO’s next big-budget epic about Westworld, a wild west amusement park where “guests” can interact with and, in most cases, commit violent acts against the android “hosts” who populate the simulacrum of an old western American town. While the first few episodes of these shows have extremely different plotlines, characters and tonal notes, they both reveal common themes about religion and ethics in the current hyper-mediated moment.
First of all, both of the shows borrow elements from science fiction in that the shows present alternative spaces in which the normal ethical and moral rules have shifted. The Good Place presents a heaven-like space where all the “good” people go after death. The show illustrates that the good place is full of the most ethical and selfless individuals. It is also impossible for people to do bad things in the good place. Even curse words are transformed as they come out of people’s mouths, hence the show’s tagline, “What the fork!?” When Bell’s character, Eleanor, manages to commit selfish acts, as she commonly did on earth, the physical structure of the good place literally begins to crumble. The presence of a “bad” person in the good place might just destroy the sanctity of this space.
Westworld, on the other hand, presents a hell on earth space where humans do the most vile things to the androids with no consequences. One of the main android hosts aptly quotes from Shakespeare, “Hell is empty and the devils are here.” This is certainly true as people pay big bucks to visit Westworld and “go evil,” as one guest says. The humans rape, torture and murder the androids in the most sadistic ways. The main android host, Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood), is programmed to be always optimistic. We watch her wake up each morning and reflect on how her world is overwhelmingly good. As she repeats the same narrative each day, she is never able to use this positivity to stop the evil that exists. Contrary to The Good Place, in Westworld any good in this context is immediately quashed and destroyed. It seems unlikely that Dolores can use her goodness to transform this world.
In addition to the ways that these shows play with spaces of absolute good or evil, the plotlines also highlight how morality, ethics and religion are shifting in this hyper-mediated age. Over the last few months, we have been reflecting on the concept of hyper-mediation in the Center for Media, Religion and Culture. We are focused on the transformation of mediation due to factors such as the acceleration of social life, the hybridity of spaces and practices, the networking of society, and the creation of new technologies. Rather than focus only on the technological aspects of hyper-mediation, we have found it more useful to see how hyper-mediation might be elucidated by an engagement with the Deleuzian concept of assemblages, which allows us to examine the relations between humans, technologies, spaces, networks, affect, social settings, algorithms, software, etc. Recent scholarship has examined how assemblages can provide a deeper understanding of the social meaning that is produced in the social practices of Black twitter (Sanjay Sharma) and selfies (Aaron Hess).
These two current TV shows illustrate how an assemblage of various factors has led to transformations and intensifications of social practices. For instance, The Good Place illustrates the increased interest in tracking and documenting our daily practices, especially altruistic behavior. Because of an assemblage of the software programs that keep track of activities, the ability to track behavior anywhere and anytime through mobile devices, and the social pressures to hold oneself accountable, we now live in an era when it is more common for Americans to track and display daily activities.
In the first episode of The Good Place, the leader, Michael (played by Ted Danson), gives an orientation to the new residents in which he clarifies how it is determined who gets sent to the good place. Everyone on earth is monitored and accrues positive points for each good deed in life. Points can be acquired for simple acts like holding the door for someone or adopting a dog, or for more extensive commitments like volunteering to clear a war-torn country of landmines or donating an organ to a stranger. Instead of seeing goodness and morality as the immeasurable sense of a person’s whole being, there is a concrete numeric value attached to morality. The main character, Eleanor, even questions whether the people there are genuinely good or just worked the system in their favor to earn enough points.
While watching the show, it is easy to compare the residents of the good place to those people in our social media feed who incessantly track and publicly share their good deeds: participating in an overseas volunteer program, running a marathon to raise money for charity, adopting a dog, advocating for a vegan diet, or promoting progressive political causes. Although there are some identifiably religious people in the good place, such as a Sikh man, a Buddhist monk (although his story is complicated later on) and a Muslim woman, being a part of an organized religion or spiritual path does not guarantee one entry into this heaven. This show illustrates the current hyper-mediated moment, in which religious and moral systems are transformed and now more closely resemble a social media record of all the good deeds that are tracked and shared throughout a life.
Although Westworld makes little mention of religion and nothing that happens in the actual Westworld is mediated, I think this drama presents fascinating points of reflection on issues of hyper-mediation and morality. Like any worthwhile science fiction story, Westworld encourages the viewer to ask ethical questions about what constitutes life and human consciousness. If the androids gain consciousness and have memories of the horrible events that befall them, then is it ethical to continue to do harm to them? Even if the androids have no memories of these events, can one justify torturing and murdering androids for sport?
Even more intriguing than these ethical questions is what Westworld has to offer to our understanding of hypermediation. Critics have reflected on the obvious comparisons between how the human guests act in Westworld and the experiences of playing video games. In both cases, people enter into fictional worlds in which normal ethical rules don’t always apply. The comparison to video games is appropriate and can be discussed further, but I also think the space of Westworld has a lot to say about our hyper-mediated culture in which we not only track all of our actions but we also strive to interact with and fully experience mediated spaces. Rather than watch TV from a distance or read a newspaper article, people desire full immersion experiences through things like 3-D blockbuster films, virtual reality journalism pieces, pilgrimages to the filming sites of popular TV shows in order to recreate scenes, and interactions with current events through hashtag and selfie campaigns.
Immersion into mediated spaces goes a step further when participants enter Westworld and are able to live within this mediated reality. In a similar way to the game-makers in The Hunger Games trilogy, the human creators behind Westworld develop elaborate storylines and dialogue for each of the android hosts within the world. The human guests are allowed to interact with and transform the storylines. Notably, no one in Westworld uses a cell phone to document the experience through selfies or tweets. Instead, participants have the ultimate two-screen experience without any screens: they are able to respond to what is happening to them and create their own experience in this highly scripted environment.
The most effective science fiction and speculative works of art reflect on rising anxieties over changes to social structures and practices (see also my previous post on the Black Mirror series). The Good Place and Westworld are starkly different shows in the fall 2016 line-up, but both are attempts to address how hyper-mediation has shifted social practices, religious beliefs and ethical behaviors.