Roughly speaking, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics supposes that a near-infinite number of universes exist in parallel at the same space and time as our own, between them containing every possible outcome to every possible decision ever made.
For instance, one universe might contain a TV show where Jenji Kohan writes, say, a TV show about a socialite stranded in a Renaissance faire troupe. Or maybe a show where the guy from Dear Evan Hansen co-stars with Gwyneth Paltrow and Barbra Streisand in a musical comedy series about a needy politician. Or, you know, a show where Harry Potter plays an angel tasked with saving the world in the face of bored godhead Steve Buscemi. That sort of thing.
Except, no, wait, because all those shows are real things that are currently being made in this universe. As are shows about Jerrod Carmichael’s wife having an affair with his barber and something called God Friended Me, about “a lippy atheist whose life is turned upside down when he is friended by God on Facebook”. Somewhere along the line, it turns out, television premises went absolutely nuts.
It didn’t always used to be this way. Television, especially comedy, was once all about place. You’d pick a wide-open location – a family home, a workplace, a bar – and use it as a canvas for all manner of plot and character devices. Sometimes shows would add in a gimmick to get noticed by commissioners – like that weird stretch in the 1990s when every new sitcom pilot had an animal in it – but that tended to get dropped at the first possible opportunity. Farewell, monkey from Friends and Will & Grace’s parrot, we hardly knew you.
But now it feels like there’s been a shift, and premise has started to replace place. Even though all TV shows sound weird on paper – to pick an example entirely at random, Scrubs is about a manic doctor plagued with crippling hallucinations – this new batch sounds especially out there.
One reason for this might be the sheer amount of space that needs to be filled. By one count, America alone produced close to 500 television shows across networks, cable and streaming services last year. That’s a colossal amount. It’s more than anyone could watch. Competition is so fierce that a bizarre premise seems like the best way in. Would I watch ashow where Daniel Radcliffe works in a bar? Maybe. Would I watch Miracle Workers – a show where Daniel Radcliffe plays an angel battling against the worst instincts of his boss, who is also Steve Buscemi? Almost definitely yes, if only to see what it’s like. In frantic times, there’s no better hook than curiosity.
But curiosity only gets you so far. For example, The Good Place sounds absolutely potty on paper (some dead people are tricked into thinking that hell is really heaven) but it works because it’s sharp and fun and well-acted. But shows inspired by The Good Place – and doesn’t God Friended Me sound like it’s inspired by The Good Place? – might not share those qualities.
Let’s go back to Lost for a moment, since it shares so many similarities with The Good Place. When it hit big a decade and a half ago, Lost opened the floodgates for a ton of high-concept dramas. There was FlashForward, where everyone on Earth saw their own futures. There was The Nine, about strangers who mysteriously survived a bank heist. There was The Event, about some aliens having a ton of flashbacks all the time. There was Heroes, about the world’s most boring superheroes. Without exception, these shows were all terrible. They had the premise, but they couldn’t nail the execution.
And that might be where we are now. The Good Place has shown that high-concept sitcoms about self-improvement with religious overtones can work. God Friended Me, the Daniel Radcliffe thing and Jerrod Carmichael’s new show all seem to borrow elements of this, but they would all do well to remember that premise alone cannot sustain. One of these shows is going to be the new FlashForward. I cannot wait to see which.