Dan Merchant is a veteran writer, producer, director best known for SyFy’s Z Nation and his documentary feature Lord, Save Us From Your Followers. His latest series Going Home is produced in association with Sony AFFIRM Originals for Great American Pure Flix.
We don’t like to talk about death in America. Oh sure, we’re fine with death in our entertainment so long as we don’t have to talk about it. We sit entranced as our favorite TV doctors valiantly battle the ultimate foe with Hail Mary surgical procedures and impassioned cries of “Get me 10cc’s of morphine. Stat!” Every existential threat is met with aggressive, decisive action rather than contemplation for as every TV viewer knows there is no greater shame for the TV doctor than to lose a patient (especially one portrayed by a featured guest star).
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That was my conclusion, anyway. Now, my family didn’t do any better when it came to acknowledging death. We didn’t talk about it, even when people died. I grew up going to church and I’d heard talk of heaven but the “Auntie Marge is in a better place now” party line was contradicted by the sad faces and somber mood at her funeral. Puzzling. But at the age of 8, television provided valuable illumination when PBS aired Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch: I soon understood Auntie Marge was “no more, has ceased to be, expired and gone to see her maker.” She was, indeed, an “ex-aunt.” Eavesdropping on Michael Palin and John Cleese as they debated death was oddly reassuring and, on quiet nights, I still catch myself “pining for the Fjords.”
Fast forward to present day, I now have the pleasure of talking about death at work every day. The conversations are startling, refreshing and deeply meaningful. I should explain I’m not a grief counselor or a mortician, I’m the creator/showrunner of the tender drama Going Home which follows hospice nurse Charley Copeland (Northern Exposure’s Cynthia Geary) as she walks her clients “home” to their final reward.
Now in our second season on Great American Pure Flix, Going Home may be the only medical drama in TV history NOT trying to save the patient and that is a surprisingly beautiful thing. At Going Home we talk about death a lot – and not just on screen. We talk about death in the writer’s room, at the table read, after the rehearsals, between takes, at the grip truck, in the make-up room – it seems everybody has a story to share, obviously. We’ve all lost loved ones.
And while it may sound counterintuitive, Going Home’s hospice stories give life. These stories of hope, grace and compassion are deeply rooted in our shared human experience which is, I think, why they’ve connected so profoundly with our audience. I feel humbled to be telling these kinds of stories, the ones that remind us that we are all the same. I once interviewed SNL legend and former U.S. senator Al Franken for a documentary and he told me: “I like to make entertainment that rewards the audience for understanding how human beings operate.” A worthy goal, right?
After watching season five of Fargo, I think Noah Hawley would give an “amen” to that. Have you seen the finale? Damn! Spoiler alert: the closing thirty minutes is among the most impactful faith-based content I’ve ever seen. Deeply moving. Hawley earns it too, building all season to this inspiring, scandalous act of “turn the other cheek” forgiveness. The beauty is simply stunning, but that’s what stories of redemption do. Thanks Noah, well done.
Now, I wish there was a better label than “faith-based.” It’s not very nuanced, which is a shame because it’s been a terrific season for faith-based entertainment; from the box office bonanza of Jim Caviezel’s Sound of Freedom to Dallas Jenkins’ The Chosen debuting their fourth season of the first-ever television series about the life of Jesus IN THEATERS (and THEN going to streaming and THEN to broadcast because, well, give the people what they want) and, finally, Amazon Studios has just announced a bold partnership with Jon Erwin’s The Wonder Project to create “universal stories of love, triumph and spirituality.”
So, what does Amazon know? Amazon knows everything! They have dimensional consumer-based analytics and those analytics have affirmed what some of us storytellers already knew: there is a huge audience hungry for stories of love, forgiveness, reconciliation… and even death. These stories of hope put life into the world and remind us of who we are to be and, please remember, at the end of the story, love defeats hate. I know it’s true, I just watched it on a television show.