Teaching Demons and Eating Nazis: Morality in Trump-era fantasy comedy

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Donald Trump’s personality is arguably symptomatic of the values of the contemporary era. His aggressive individualism, narcissism and selfishness were no impediment to securing the presidency, which suggests the normalisation, indeed, valorisation, of these characteristics in the context of the neoliberalisation of Western societies. The apparent lack of consequences for Trump’s own misdeeds, particularly in terms of his financial and political corruption, has led to questions about the ‘death of shame’ in politics and society. If, as Trump has demonstrated, immorality, dishonesty and avarice go unpunished, what is the point of being good?

Taking advantage of the potential of critically marginalised genres like fantasy and comedy to engage in radical social critique, The Good Place (NBC, 2016- ) and Santa Clarita Diet (Netflix, 2017-19) ask profound questions about what constitutes ‘goodness’ in society, and how one negotiates an increasingly complex terrain of ethical choices in almost every aspect of human life under globalised patriarchal capitalism. Both series feature sympathetic, albeit flawed, characters in fantastical scenarios: seeking to avoid eternal damnation through good deeds in The Good Place, and sating a hunger for human flesh by consuming only the assuredly reprehensible Santa Clarita Diet. They critique the pursuit of instant gratification that characterises the neoliberal ideal, examine how globalisation has created an environment where even ‘good’ behaviour can have unintended negative consequences, and ask whether it is acceptable to do ‘bad’ things in order to achieve ‘good’ outcomes.

Using fantastical premises and a comedic register, these shows manufacture extreme situations in which moral dilemmas may be tested, providing a putatively safe fictional space for radical critique. This chapter explore how genre, representation and narrative work together to construct a provocative but contained arena for ethical experimentalism. Ultimately, we argue, these shows offer primers on what constitutes ‘being good’ in the neoliberal Trump era.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAmerican Television in the Trump Era
EditorsKaren McNally
PublisherWayne State University Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 14 Feb 2020
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