Television is meant to be a form of escapism. Most shows draw you out of your own problems and plunge you into the faux issues of fictional characters. It's an easy fix to ignore the real world for a bit! But, there is a subgenre of shows that didn't get the memo about TV being a respite from real life dilemmas: TV shows about the afterlife. These shows ask big questions about life, death, and what comes after we die. Some are set in the afterlife, while others deal with the idea of the afterlife in broader terms. Either way, these shows will send you down the philosophical wormhole!
More than ever TV shows are grappling with heaven and hell, life and death. Asking the big questions that most people watch TV not to think about. But, nonetheless, these TV shows about the afterlife create a valuable dialogue around bigger issues in the world. A few are even sitcoms, injecting laughs in between postulation about morality postmortem! Each series takes on the themes of the afterlife in different ways — from comedy to thriller. Whatever way these shows choose to tackle the themes of life and death, they always aim to entertain!
A TV show literally named Afterlife has to be on this list, obviously! This British series follows a psychic medium who can communicate with the dead. Alison (Lesley Sharp) helps people come to terms with the deaths of their loved ones and even solves crimes with her eery connection to the afterlife. The series doesn't stray away from the scary nature of spirits, but it's not just a show full of jump scares. The show leans heavily into the idea of moving on and mourning naturally, no matter how difficult that may be.
What happens after you die... and come back to life? The Returned follows the lives of a group of people who suddenly reappear after being dead for several years and assume it's still the day they died. They are unaware, though, that they've been dead and that life has moved on without them. The series explores a theme about the afterlife that can only be presented on TV! When in real life could something this crazy happen?! It's an interesting look at how having a dead loved one back may not be the joy you'd think. Time passes, people change, and seeing someone you lost suddenly back after you thought you lost them for good can F you up!
Ned (Lee Pace) has a very special skill: he can revive the dead with a touch. There are some rules at play. Namely, if someone is brought back for more than a minute, someone else in the vicinity must die for balance and if Ned touches the dead a second time, they are permanently dead. He uses this unique skill to help solve murders — and find love! When his childhood crush is murdered, he has to bring her back to solve the case. But, in the end, he can't quite find it in him to touch her again. It's an imaginative look at life and death that asks, "what would you do to have someone you love back?" The series also injects humor in the most unlikely of places, adding a rose-colored tinge to life after death.
Based on the DC comic of the same name, Constantine follows John Constantine (Matt Ryan), an exorcist and an occult detective that fights supernatural threats attempting to come into our world. The series deals with an alternative to heaven or hell as the choice afterlife destinations and, instead, focuses in on Constantine's damnation. After a failed exorcism, his soul is damned to endure eternal torment. His actions fighting off the supernatural are an attempt to redeem his soul and maybe not have to get tortured in damnation for millions of years. The series may be science fiction, but the themes of protecting your afterlife by living a good life are very real.
When you think of the afterlife, you often think of grim reapers — the shadowy figures tasked with bringing your soul to its final destination. Dead Like Me flips the idea of grim reapers on its head and portrays them as everyday people just trying to move on to their afterlife. When George (Ellen Muth) is killed in a freak toilet-seat accident (yeah, really), she unwittingly becomes a reaper. She has to guide a secret number of souls to their afterlife before she can travel to her own . George and her crew of reapers all have plenty of time to sort out their lives post-death and pre-afterlife as they muddle through limbo.
This sci-fi anthology series has dealt with the afterlife in several of its standalone installments. The most notable is in the episode "San Junipero" from season three. The episode introduces the simulated town of San Junipero, where the elderly can reinhabit their younger bodies and the dead can upload themselves into the simulation to live out their afterlife. It's a look at a future that could someday be a reality. What if, instead of the old visions of heaven and hell, you were able to choose where you spent the afterlife? The idea that there is a choice to be made is incredibly futuristic and gives us hope for an autonomous death!
We can't even count the number of the times that Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) have been the hell, heaven, and purgatory on this series! These two brothers have seen basically everything the afterlife has to offer. Their frequent interactions with demons, angels, and everything in between has basically made the idea of life and death meaningless. Many TV shows about the afterlife are science fiction based because it's a way to tell these stories more fully and without being constrained by what is or isn't actually possible! Supernatural takes the leeway it has as a sci-fi show and runs with it in the most creative, boundary-stretching ways!
The "psychic solving crimes" trope is seemingly everywhere these days. But, Medium was one of the first to nail the genre. Alison (Patricia Arquette) has the gift of being able to talk to dead people. That comes in pretty handy when you're trying to figure out how someone died! Alison's connection to the afterlife is helpful for those around her but comes at the cost of being hyperaware of what may happen to her after she dies. The series explores how her frame of reference around life and death is completely altered by her abilities.
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What if the afterlife is just like real life? Forever explores the marriage between Oscar (Fred Armisen) and June (Maya Rudolph) before and after they die. The two have fallen into a too-familiar routine which continues on into the afterlife. June finally gets fed up and their "life" together diverges into a crossroads as they navigate their relationship in the afterlife town of Riverside. The series explores just how long forever is. Sure, you may want to be reunited with a loved one after death, but do you really want to spend eternity beside them?! This is one of the most unique TV shows about the afterlife ever!
Our fave TV shows about the afterlife are the more outlandish ones. In Lucifer, Lucifer Morning Star a.k.a The Devil (Tom Ellis) abandons hell because he's gotten a bit bored. Instead, he opts to open a bar in L.A. and work as a consultant with the LAPD. (Because that sounds better than hell, apparently!) The series takes a cheeky look at heaven and hell, creating fascinating lore as it goes. Turns out, the afterlife can get boring for even its gatekeepers!
Melinda (Jennifer Love Hewitt) has a very special gift: she can communicate with ghosts. She uses this skill to help spirits with unresolved issues move on in the afterlife. The show explores the idea that people don't always move on peacefully into the afterlife. Heaven and hell are not the only options when you're deceased — sometimes you have to make it through limbo! Few TV shows about the afterlife explore the difficulties of moving on after death. Whether or not there is a heaven or hell, we're not sure, but we are sure that whatever comes after death is complicated AF!
The afterlife can be... repetitive. Russian Doll centers on Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), a woman who is stuck in an endless loop of reincarnating and dying after getting in a fatal accident on the way to a party. She relives the day over and over and over again, dying in different ways each time. It's another great show about the afterlife that centers on the journey and not the destination. In Nadia's unending night in limbo, dying over and over again becomes her purgatory until she can learn why she's there and release her soul. Life isn't easy — why would you expect the afterlife to be?!
A community is turned upside down when the dead return to the living and they haven't aged at all since their deaths. Sure, it's a lot like The Returned, but that's because it's an intriguing concept! The idea that we could solve lives mysteries if people started coming back from the afterlife is too tempting to not explore on-screen! Resurrection presents an entertaining puzzle while exploring some of the biggest questions we have about the afterlife. It also presents the dilemma of losing someone, moving on with your life, and having them come back. Coping with that at a totally new stage in life can be as complex for the living as the formerly-dead!
Spoiler alert: after the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) dies and this time it sticks. Well, sort of. One hundred and forty-seven days later, she's brought back to live — much to her dismay. Most TV shows about the afterlife don't tackle the idea that the afterlife might actually be better than life itself. It turns out, Buffy was (of course) in heaven due to all her good deeds on earth. Her friends, unfortunately, assumed she was trapped in a hell dimension and bring her back to suffer on Earth. Buffy explores her feelings and emotional state after being ripped from a beautiful afterlife and brought back into an f'd up world. The idea that there is something incredible waiting for us after death makes this an assuring storyline, despite the toll it takes on our favorite Slayer!
On the other hand... What if heaven wasn't actually so great? Miracle Workers explores the idea that heaven is just another civilization doomed to fail, especially since God (Steve Buscemi) is kind of a bumbling fool. Overcome with the craziness of having to deal with Earth, his creation, he decides to just give it up and run a restaurant. Obviously, this can't happen. So it's up to a couple of angels to try and change his mind. TV shows about the afterlife so rarely zone in on the permanent residents of the afterlife. We're always so concerned with the living — what about the already dead? God, his angels, and the network of people running the company that is heaven prove that the afterlife is really not much different from real life: chaotic AF and sometimes we just feel like giving up on it!
Some questions can never be answered. That's how this series takes on the afterlife after 2% of the world's population suddenly vanishes one day without a trace. Where they went is the question on everyone's mind but it's an inquiry that cannot possibly be answered. The Leftovers explores how those questions about the afterlife can have profound effects on the living. Everyone's lives are changed forever in the aftermath of "The Departure," and it shows the overwhelming influence the idea of life after death has on people. The show doesn't ever visit heaven or hell, but it instead smartly deep-dives into the emotional complexities associated with trying to figure out the randomness of life.
On The Good Place, the afterlife is complicated, to say the least. But there are a few things we know for sure. There is a "Good Place" and a "Bad Place" (the vague ideas of heaven and hell) that people can find themselves in when they die. We learn on season one that our protagonists, who think they're in the Good Place, are actually in the Bad Place. Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and her friends raise an oft-unasked question: what if we could change where we belong in the afterlife? What if she and her friends can somehow convince the powers that be that they deserve a reprieve from the Bad Place and belong on the brighter side of things? The autonomy of life after death is an interesting concept that none of the other TV shows about the afterlife have ever explored!