It may be adapted from a British sitcom, but Ghosts is easily the season’s most hopeful show about America.
That’s not how it’s advertised, of course. On the surface, the CBS series is a comedy about a couple living in a haunted mansion. Weekly chaos ensues because Sam (Rose McIver) can see and hear all the spirits floating around.
And if that’s all the show was, it would be plenty. Funny jokes are their own justification, and Ghosts has dozens per episode. Plus, each of its major characters – eights phantoms and two “livings” – are uncommonly well-written, making it that much easier to care about the series. You can laugh at the general idea of a viking ghost, but you can love Thorfinn (Devan Chandler Long), a very specific viking ghost who enjoys reality dating shows and has suffered 1,000 years of night terrors because he once killed a squirrel he believed was his best friend.
But over the course of the show's first season, its one-liners and backstories have coalesced into something richer and more poignant. It's become clear that, all hauntings aside, the series is also about the value of staying put. The characters are trapped in the house together – the ghosts literally cannot leave, while Sam and her husband Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar) have sunk all their money into the place. Which is to say they have no choice but to work through their conflicts and misunderstandings.
And that leads to real change. For instance, Sam’s modern-woman politics encourage Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky), a 19th-century proper lady ghost, to experiment with voicing her own opinions. She doesn’t become suddenly enlightened – she may never trust the Irish – but still, she evolves in significant ways.
That’s true for everyone, and the one time we meet a ghost who refuses to change, he gets sucked down into something like hell. That’s basically a moral position. The show says our eternal project is getting better at being ourselves and helping others do the same. Those who refuse this work will be hopelessly lost.
Tilt your head the right way, and you can see the series apply the same moral to America itself. Along with Thorfinn and Hetty, the ghosts include a member of the Lenape nation, a Black blues singer from the 20s, a cloested Revolutionary soldier, a Latine hippy, a Jewish investment banker, and a WASPy scoutmaster. Sam is a white woman, and Jay is an Indian-American man. In some way, these people represent much of American history (and prehistory). They are the physical manifestation of the country’s past having a conversation with its present.
From that perspective, it’s profound to see these avatars of the American experience bicker, then listen, then heal. It’s powerful to watch them become a more caring community. It’s a hopeful vision of what the entire country could become, if we would just listen to each other like our afterlives depended on it.
The season finale of Ghosts airs Thursday, April 21 at 9:00 PM on CBS. The series is also available for streaming on Paramount+.
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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.