When I was younger, my mother and I would play a game. It started with a simple question: “If you could eat one [X] for the rest of your life, what would it be?” The [X] in question varied: sometimes we’d leave it totally open; sometimes reduce it to a cuisine or restaurant dish or a fruit or a cheese. But there would always be one condition attached: Every time you ate the thing, it would taste as good as the very first time you’d tried it.
The extended montage that opens the first episode of Amazon’s acclaimed series Forever explains why this caveat was always necessary. The show charts the slow decline and gradual rehabilitation of the marriage between Oscar (Fred Armisen) and June (Maya Rudolph), two contented-seeming, yuppy-ish types living out contented-seeming, yuppy-ish lives in the suburbs of Southern California. They meet-cute, bond over drinks and dinner, and eventually buy a lake house. Oscar appears to spend most of his time there fishing and cooking his catch. We later learn that his signature preparation is trout amandine, but at this point in the series, all we see is Oscar present it, with a flourish, to June. And he does so again and again and again, with consistent enthusiasm on his part, but visibly dwindling interest from his wife.
The scene illustrates the repetition and tedium of this dysfunctional marriage in microcosm: the initial excitement, followed by the slow decline into borderline-resentful boredom on the part of June in particular. Showrunner Alan Yang could have used anything to chart the evolution of their relationship — think of the equally masterful sequence that opens Pixar’s Up — but it’s hardly surprising that he lands on food. As anyone familiar with another Yang project, Master of None, will know, eating and drinking are central preoccupations in his work, somewhere close to a full-blown obsession.
The food on display in Forever doesn’t belong alongside the fine dining moneyshots, regional delicacy close-ups, or full-blown Italo-porn of Master of None, though. It’s domestic, in every sense of the word: homemade, on home soil, by one home-owner for another. The very intimacy of this kind of culinary act makes it a perfect stand-in for the couple more generally, and for the issues between them: The reliably conflict-averse Oscar, for example, cooks when he should talk, as though he could nurture the ailing relationship simply by fixing it dinner.
He even continues to do this when given the ultimate second chance. In a “holy-shit!” spoiler that Amazon somehow managed to keep secret in all of its marketing for the show, Oscar actually dies at the end of the first episode, during an ill-advised skiing trip in place of the usual lake house vacation. During the second episode, we watch June pull her life back together, slowly gaining some closure and starting to acknowledge that not every aspect of their life together was perfect. There is even a suggestion, as she prepares to fly to Hawaii and sips on a business class guava bellini, that she is ready to move on. Except she then knocks back a macadamia nut, and (spoiler again!) chokes to death. June regains consciousness in the afterlife, with Oscar standing above her.
So her no-longer-former husband presenting a familiar dish of trout amandine at the end of the third episode is a decisive moment — a sign that the old routines of their life together have continued, unaltered, despite their very obvious change in circumstances. Rudolph’s facial expression at this point speaks volumes about her character’s broader discontentment in her new home and with her new (old) companion. It’s no surprise that June seizes on newcomer Kase (played by Catherine Keener). In contrast to the other residents of the bucolic Riverside community, Kase is brusque and self-sufficient. She also clearly has little interest in befriending Oscar and June, going so far as to throw the mac and cheese cooked by Oscar as a welcome gift into her garden flowerbed.
In rejecting Oscar’s food, Kase is also rejecting the cosily monotonous routines that he enjoys, giving June permission to do the same. She gives voice to her growing disillusionment in Riverside in a conversation between the couple, in which she complains that they do “the same five things every day,” and Oscar — again, rather than engaging — goes off to make dinner. His announcement (“We’re having ceviche”) is met with another look of consummate anti-enthusiasm.
June’s lack of appetite for Oscar’s food shows her dwindling appetite for him. The gregarious Kase (“We should be trying something different, we should be pushing the limits, exploring, having orgies”) offers her a far more rewarding form of emotional sustenance. While she remains well-fed, June is starved of something more fundamental. By the fifth episode, when she tells Oscar, “We do the same things every single day, and I don’t see it changing — literally forever — and that bothers me,” it is a foregone conclusion that she will abandon her husband in search of new stimulus in Oceanside. The eternity suggested by the show’s title has started to look less like a reward, and more like a punishment.
The use of food as a form of torture is not uncommon in popular culture. But historically it has tended to be more baroque, borrowing from medieval tradition. In the third circle of Dante’s Inferno, the gluttonous are kept like pigs in a sty, wallowing in a putrid mud that they are also forced to eat. Fast-forward a few hundred years to David Fincher’s Se7en, and John Doe’s first victim has been coerced into literally eating himself to death — a similarly Old Testament punishment to fit the perceived crime.
Forever, though, shows how food can inflict a more subtle kind of agony. Food is something that we must, by necessity, eat every day, but it is also something culturally imbued with specialness, the central aspect of religious and secular festivities the world over. As Helen Rosner’s essay “On Chicken Tenders” articulates, there is something quietly horrifying in the latter category collapsing into the former: the special becoming quotidian; the joyous becoming boring. You can, Rosner says, “have too much of a good thing.” You can, Rosner argues, become “inured to delight.”
We are never told whether the world that June and Oscar inhabit is heaven or hell or purgatory. Things are clearer in another comedy sort-of set in the afterlife: We spend the first season of The Good Place believing Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) and her companions are in heaven, only to discover – twist! — that they’ve been placed in a special kind of hell designed to torture them in far subtler and more affecting ways than the official Bad Place, with its hot spike pits full of lava and bees and lightning.
But in showrunner Michael Schur’s hands, or the hands of fake Good Place architect Michael (Ted Danson), food is used to inflict a very similar sort of agony as that endured by June in Forever. Schur and writer Megan Amram have discussed how they intend the food in the fake Good Place to be “part of Michael’s well-thought out plan to torture Eleanor and company.” It’s all stuff that “seems perfectly fine when you think about it, but is not particularly satisfying to eat,” like clam chowder (“a savory latte with bugs in it”) and Hawaiian pizza. Or, indeed, like frozen yogurt, ubiquitous in the show’s first episode and a perfect embodiment of the totally okay but also kind of meh foodstuffs that Schur and Amram fixate upon.
It’s certainly food that’s in marked contrast to the usual fare on offer in most depictions of the afterlife. Think of the purgatory-like Judgment City in Defending Your Life, where restaurants are lavish all-you-can-eat affairs and the food they serve is beyond delicious (added bonus: it doesn’t cause weight gain). It’s perfect precisely because it’s so divorced from the occasional downsides that come from having a hungry body on earth: our petty considerations about money; our mundane neuroses about appetite and weight gain. Food in The Good Place and Forever feels rooted in something much more relatable. Whereas most afterlife fiction seeks out extremes — the rosiest vision of heaven, the bleakest vision of hell — these are shows that find a middle ground that looks a lot more like what surrounds us on a daily basis, and use it to ask a more provocative set of questions about what it means to be a person, whether dead or alive.
The answer is fittingly complex. At one point in The Good Place, Michael ruminates on frozen yogurt: “There’s something so human about taking something great and ruining it a little so you can have more of it.” This, in fact, might be the central thesis of both shows. They’re both about our eternal drive to find some sort of satisfaction, and the very human way in which we block our own paths on that quest. And if either show offers some sort of consolation, it’s in the realization that sometimes the route to true, meaningful satisfaction lies not in looking out for ourselves, but for others.
June and Oscar eventually reunite and symbolically rediscover their love of food (and therefore each other) during a delightful scene extolling the virtues of the banana as the perfect beach snack. But they only find this resolution after they’ve moved out of their comfort zones and accepted responsibility for their faults and marital failures. Similarly, it is only through interacting with her fellow Good/Bad Place inhabitants that Eleanor realizes her selfishness on earth, and seeks to make amends.
These shows are far from heavy-handed morality tales: they’re comedies, first and foremost (The Good Place in particular is a treasure-trove for lovers of deeply silly food puns). But the way they handle food in parallel with the personal growth of their characters is certainly similar. We can’t always get what we want; what we eat can’t always taste as delicious as it did the first time we tried it. Being happy may also mean occasionally being incredibly bored. And being a good person may also mean occasionally doing stuff you really don’t want to. In life, as with diets, balance is everything.
George Reynolds is a food writer based in the UK. He is a regular contributor to Eater London.
Editor: Greg Morabito