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CBS's Ghosts Doesn't Believe in Teachable Moments

Week after week, it spoofs the idea of cozy, happy endings.
  • Brandon Scott Jones, Rose McIver, Román Zaragoza, and Danielle Pinnock read a draft of Isaac's book. (Photo: CBS)
    Brandon Scott Jones, Rose McIver, Román Zaragoza, and Danielle Pinnock read a draft of Isaac's book. (Photo: CBS)

    Almost 40 episodes in, Ghosts still refuses to teach big lessons. Sure, the show has plenty of touching moments — try not to sniffle when Pete (Richie Moriarty) sees his grandson for the first time — and over the course of its two seasons on CBS, all the characters have evolved for the better. But even as Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky) becomes something of a feminist and Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar) finds self-confidence he never had in New York, the series resists stories that end with a tidy moral. That rejection of cozy resolutions not only creates some of its funniest bits, but also strengthens its position as one of the most thought-provoking sitcoms on network television.

    The Season 2 episode “Isaac’s Book” could easily have been about hugging and learning. At first, both Isaac (Brandon Scott Jones) and Sam (Rose McIver) are crushed when a publisher rejects her proposed book on Isaac’s exploits in the Revolutionary War. That means Isaac will forever be in the shadow of his loathed rival Alexander Hamilton, while Sam will feel like a failure in front of Isabel (Ilana Becker), a successful journalist friend who’s staying at her B&B. To stave off that sense of inadequacy, Sam pretends the book got sold after all, and her lie leads to a comic disaster. Isabel judges her for being a try-hard, and Isaac gets even more depressed about his nonexistent legacy.

    This “keeping up with the Joneses” story is especially well-timed, considering the recent hubbub over the so-called “Fleishman effect.” According to an article in The Cut, there are women who relate to Claire Danes’ character on Fleishman Is In Trouble because she believes she never measures up to her wealthy, high-status friends. And of course, that’s just the latest example of cultural hand-wringing over how many of us assume we’re lesser than other people.

    For a short while, it seems like “Isaac’s Book” is going to make a tidy little statement about remembering we’re perfect as we are. But just as Isaac and Sam are gazing at each other with teary-eyed self-affirmation, Sam gets an email. It turns out, the publishers have changed their minds, and they want to publish the book after all. “Sweet, sweet external validation!” Isaac cries. “We’re somebody again!” Sam squeals that she’s going to post the news on Instagram and “accidentally” tag Isabel.

    That’s not so wholesome, but it’s awfully honest. Because even though it’s easy to say we should be content with who we are, the truth is that sweet, sweet external validation can act like a drug. Just a little taste can deliver a delicious high, and it can fuel the craving for more.

    All the characters have moments when their baser instincts get the best of them. Elsewhere in “Isaac’s Book,” Thorfinn (Devan Chandler Long) tries to stop being so violent in order to impress Flower (Sheila Carrasco), but when she realizes she’s turned on by his desire to smite his enemies, he happily reverts. In the Season 2 episode “Alberta’s Podcast,” Alberta (Danielle Pinnock) is distraught when it’s revealed she once ratted out a rival singer in order to get a gig. She’s mostly upset because she has a history of judging snitches, and she worries it’ll be bad for her reputation. But when she realizes her moral lapse can make her seem approachable, she’s delighted to have a new angle. Imagining her fans all around her, she spreads her arms and says, “Your one true god is now relatable!,” then cackles with glee. There are no follow-up speeches about evolving in the face of her own hypocrisy.

    These major plot points pair nicely with the jokes that make moral backsliding a leitmotif. Hetty, for instance, regularly affirms her commitment to abusing the poor. In the Season 2 episode “The Family Business,” she has a lovely conversation with Sam in which they agree to trust each other’s opinions about how to make the B&B a success, and she caps it off by complimenting Sam on how nasty she was to a bumbling assistant. The two of them giggle over it. Similarly, while Sasappis (Román Zaragoza) has had several storylines about his hopelessly romantic heart, his hobby is stirring up drama in everyone else’s relationships. In the Season 2 episode, “A Date to Remember,” he pops up like an impish sprite, spreading gossip and provoking arguments. At one point, he delivers a juicy tidbit, then gestures at Isaac, encouraging him to get mad. No matter what he learns about being gentle with the people he loves, Sas can always be depended on to spill the tea.

    All sitcoms do this to some degree. The form depends on characters staying the same, so they can blunder into silly situations every week. But Ghosts is especially good at getting to the edge of a teachable moment, then turning away. That’s one of its primary strategies for making its characters seem human. They’re all fundamentally decent — and again, they are capable of positive change — but good people are imperfect. Every time it refuses to let them have a tidy resolution that erases one of their flaws, the show essentially teases us for thinking that could happen in the first place. After all, Jay and Sam are just people, and the ghosts are stuck on earth because they’re not quite ready for heaven. (The March 9 episode “Weekend from Hell'' revisits a character who got sent the other way, and that story also spoofs the idea of a person immediately changing for the better.)

    Every time, this brings the show back to its fundamental empathy. It keeps reminding us that being human is hard, but that living is worth it. We may want a quick fix for our faults, and we may want stories that promise them, but Ghosts is too wise to suggest that’s how things actually work. It assures us it’s better to mess up, but keep trying.

    Ghosts airs Thursday at 8:31PM ET on CBS. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Ghosts, CBS, Brandon Scott Jones, Danielle Pinnock, Devan Chandler Long, Rebecca Wisocky, Román Zaragoza, Rose McIver, Sheila Carrasco, Utkarsh Ambudkar