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Learning from Ghosts

The unexpected lessons and surprising pleasures of CBS’s spook-filled sitcom.
August 26, 2022
Learning from <i>Ghosts</i>
Isaac Higgintoot (Brandon Scott Jones), Hetty Woodstone (Rebecca Wisocky), and Thorfinn (Devan Long) in ‘Ghosts.’

Armed only with a one-line description of Ghosts, you probably wouldn’t be keen to watch it. A half-hour sitcom on CBS awaiting its second season, its protagonists are a couple trying to run a bed and breakfast in a manor “haunted” by ghosts. I know, it sounds like must-miss television. But Ghosts, led by showrunners Joe Port and Joe Wiseman, isn’t only legitimately funny; it also has depth that it owes to the British series from which it was derived.

Sam and her husband, Jay, move from New York City to a small town when Sam inherits a mansion, which the couple decide to turn into a B&B. After a near-death experience, Sam gains the ability to interact with the myriad ghosts from across the centuries who inhabit the house—at least until they resolve their unfinished business on Earth and are allowed to move on to the next world.

Part of the charm of the show comes from the characters of the ghosts themselves: Thor, a Viking warrior; Sasspis, a Native American with a dry wit; Isaac, a closeted officer in George Washington’s army with a complicated relationship with Alexander Hamilton; a jazz singer; a hippie; a Girl Scout troop leader who died in an archery accident; a dotcom-era finance bro; and Hattie, Sam’s ancestor and the former owner of the estate who died in the 1800s. Other ghosts also figure as more minor characters.

Some of the humor is entirely predictable, though it’s still well done. Devan Chandler Long, who plays Thor, uses his large stature and booming voice for a perfectly over-the-top stereotype of a Viking warrior, while still giving glimpses into his character’s noble, emotional core. Brandon Scott Jones, who plays Isaac, balances his mannerisms between the colonial gentleman and the stereoptypical TV gay man, cleverly conflating the two archetypes. But it might be Rebecca Wisocky, playing Hetty, who deserves the highest praise for her portrayal of a self-hating, uptight, upper-class nineteenth-century lady, complete with an irony-laden, impassioned remark about how women can’t have good judgment because of their smaller brains. Sam, being the only human who can interact with the ghosts, erupts in frustration at her departed friends during a dinner party (for the living). Hijinks ensue.

And of course, given that the basis for the show is that the ghosts mix people of different times, classes, genders, and cultures together, some of the humor is based around stereotypes. The writers toe the line impressively, using the stereotypes and culture clashes for humor that’s genuinely funny, while never crossing into anything offensive or crass.

The juxtaposition of cultures is also where the show achieves its depth. It offers a whole basket of fish out of water. As the ghosts, who haven’t had anyone but each other to talk to, learn through Sam about the modern world, they make a pretty good argument for gratitude for its improvements over the version they knew while living—civil rights, gender equality, medicine, education, and technology. When was the last time a half-hour sitcom had a techno-optimistic subtext and reminded us that this is the best time to be alive?

There’s also a darker theme in Ghosts. Unsupervised and ungoverned by any authority for decades or centuries, the ghosts have lost all civilization and decorum. Their world, before Sam helps them change it, is a comedic state of nature—except of course that they can’t kill each other. Hannah Arendt said that “every generation of Western civilization is invaded by barbarians; we call them children.” Sam, by controlling the ghosts’ interactions with the living world, is finally able to assert some authority and institute some order. Suddenly, like children, the ghosts need to learn how to behave if they want to reap the benefits of physical life—for example, to watch TV. In response, they start acting like adults again. You’ll have to decide for yourself if the show shares some disquieting themes with Thomas the Tank Engine.

As they “grow up” (the term is used advisedly regarding characters who are already dead), the ghosts also learn about each other’s cultures as well as the era they semi-inhabit. They become more cosmopolitan, retaining certain aspects of their native cultures while incorporating aspects of others in a way that allows them all to grow and to get along. By imposing order, Sam creates the conditions by which the ghosts can change their beliefs, worldviews, and even conceptions of themselves. It’s a joyful reminder of how important dynamism is to a community: As soon as the ghosts have a connection with the outside world, they begin to evolve. This could be Statecraft as Soulcraft or Nineteen Eighty-Four—your mileage may vary. But either way, it can be interpreted as a rejoinder to The Benedict Option.

It almost goes without saying that Ghosts didn’t have to be as good as it is. Plenty of mildly amusing but essentially brain-dead half-hour sitcoms have come and gone through the primetime lineups of the legacy broadcasters. Maybe Ghosts is just the latest in a long line of Americanized versions of British TV shows. Maybe CBS is upping its game as it competes with high-quality streaming services. Maybe it’s a fluke. Whatever the reason, it’s worth watching—and even worth thinking about.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.