As a person who typically ignores television, even I could not ignore the pull of The Good Place as an opportunity to unwind a bit amidst the craziest coronavirus stories.
First of all I could tell that this was an incredible leap, and I was stunned to see a television show about death, the afterlife, and an overall critique of the Christian idea of heaven and hell performed on network television of all places. NBC! Perhaps in the future a documentary will be made of the likely huge hurdles that had to be pole vaulted over by many various olympians in order for this show to even get a pilot.
Just consider what is at stake just in the first few episodes. Regardless of whether you are smart like Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), or dumb like Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), proper and sophisticated like Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), or crude and pragmatic Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), you are still going to die. Many of the characters either advertise their accomplishments or hide their embarrassments at each step in the show, but the true underlying feature of the afterlife is that they all died. In fact, most of them died horrifically.
Now that they have died, what the show excels at is trying to find out exactly what to do with people who have died, and how to “weigh” anything, making it the most philosophical sitcom I have ever seen. I’m breaking out my Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, and I am considering spending a lot of money on the very book by T.M. Scanlon that is thrown around at the end of season one.
Any other show would have slogged in its pacing, as they would have taken the “eternity” bit of the afterlife too literally, but if you’re looking for a combination between Airplane and Gilmore Girls, this is strangely it. The mantra of the show’s pace seems to be, “break stuff and see how to fix it,” and as my wife and I sit and watch the show, and make predictions, they have already occurred and we’re laughing with the writers as they throw curveball after curveball. This pace works overtime for philosophy amateurs like me, as I barely have time to process the limitations with the scenes the characters are thrown in.
But let’s also be clear: The Good Place, as a light TV sit-com, is transgressive as hell.
My parents would hate this show (another reason why I like it). It takes the historical interpretation of Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” literally. And in between whatever the actual good place is, and the actual bad place, the designers trade out the traditional hell for a hell of No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. The hell imagined here is a westernized and consumerist one. Tahani still falls short of successful party runner due to the timely popularity of others, and even when Tahani has an awareness that they specifically torture her with this, it doesn’t make it easier. At the beginning of season two, she responds by shagging Jason, which is something that the living Tahani would never have done as he is certainly, “below her station.” Still, this is the sort of post-traumatic growth of redefining someone’s limitations. Maybe Tahani learned something in hell after all?
This is Eleanor’s key dilemma in season one. How does eternity even work if characters can exhibit change? What is the definition of a soulmate in a place with different frozen yogurt flavors? Prison as discipline and punishment is redefined as prison as rehabilitation, which is something that the architect for the setting Michael (Ted Danson) certainly does not want either. The key word here is ambiguity. Christianity for many people has a difficult time with ambiguity, but in binary questions of heaven and hell, every small choice certainly has to weigh in somewhere, right? I mean Michael literally begins the first presentation by discussing the weight of certain actions in a positive and negative light. And immediately alarm bells should be ringing in one’s head: how do they get those numbers? How is one bad thing certainly more or less worse than others? That’s the easy question. The hard question is: why is it exactly that amount worse?
Anyone who spent their youth in churches should watch this show. I think it is stunning that it even got made, that it was made on network television, and it is better than it has any right to be. Even at the most basic level, if you don’t enjoy the deeper richness of the moral philosophy at hand, it is still just very funny. I haven’t even mentioned The Good Place‘s onboard AI Janet, who routinely steals the show with absurdist jokes of three involving a cactus, and getting cake placed on the front of her mouth. Those moments made me laugh more than at any other moment since the coronavirus pandemic began.
But for those who do want to have their cake shoved in their face and eat it too, there is something special here. The Good Place reminds us that no choice exists in a vacuum, and that human relationships are the gateways to better living.