“Why Should I Live?”
Steven Pinker begins his optimistic defense of The Enlightenment with a story of when, in a Q & A session for a previous speaking occasion, he is asked by a young woman, “Why Should I Live?”
In the introduction to Enlightenment Now he provides a fairly robust answer in a short amount of time that, paraphrased, amounts to several options. 1) Acquire Knowledge 2) Spend Time With Those You Love…and 3) Help Other People
In The Good Place, especially as the characters say goodbye, we see those methods for living play out. Tahani is able to become an architect and continue her quest to learn things and cross things off her list. Chidi was able to spend time with those he loved, and Eleanor was able to help each person get to where they needed be, particularly in helping Michael “become a real boy.”
That leaves Jason, who was possibly more Eastern in his philosophical underpinnings than any of us realized, achieving enlightenment by playing the perfect game of Madden football in a stadium surrounded by cheering fans and encouraged by his father. He spends possibly thousands of years contemplating life in the forest as he waits for his Janet to return so he can offer a necklace to her. His monk behavior is the Eastern’s answer to much of the show’s Western leanings.
I have finished the fourth and final season, and what a wild ride it’s been. I’ve seen many cacti, heard the phrase “penis flatten” more times than I ever thought I would, and I think I have also finished one of the best comedies ever on TV. I have previously have written about The Good Place, but it continues to shock me how this ever got made in the first place. It seems to attack religion, politics, and sex consistently…and on network television. I hope this will be a sign of good things in the future.
In this post, I’d like to try and lay a finger on what it is about the show I find so compelling, and why you should watch it.
The Benefits of Good Writing
For a long time, I had serious misgivings about the state of comedy. It was too improvisational and gross. Most of the time they simply ran the camera on actors as they spouted whatever came to their head, and while this may have made filming the movie quite fun and enjoyable, it produced untranslatable and monotonous comedy in the theater.
But The Good Place is the kitchen sink of comedy in the best way possible. Toilet and poop humor abounds for the babies, while philosophical jabs are there for the hyperliterate and overintelligent. The first season is absolutely the best at providing an Airplane sense of speed of jokes, laying one down after another so quickly that you actively stifle your laughing to catch the next one.
So you can laugh again.
Tahani brings in her referential humor and her comedy of manners to fill in the gaps, not to mention that each of the character archetypes not only have the little required to give them problems, they also are given enough space to problem solve and grow across the seasons.
Also rather surprising is the use of special effects, which is done for such wacky situations and so quickly that you don’t have enough time to criticize its poor quality. While action movies are forced to linger on the CGI because they must keep the audience from getting lost in any fight scene, the effects in The Good Place present opportunities for one-off jokes that, even if you didn’t find it funny, are not there for very long.
Perhaps all this is thanks to the excellent writing. The first season may go down as some of the best and most dense comedic writing in the history of television. Sure, the second and third season had a difficult time capitalizing on the opportunities, with a plot that felt close to spinning out of control (though they always managed to rein it back in). But the fourth season managed to clean up and get back to the essentials of what The Good Place was, which was discovering the many problems of the conventional logic of “good” and “bad.”
What makes the writing so wonderful is the realization that people live out the ritual of cruelty they’ve been given. We are grown into ourselves, and what that has to say about heaven and hell is so large as to make it difficult to convey in a single blot post here. But we cannot help but agree that Chidi recognizes the synthesized problem of decision making, how a choice to buy an apple sends ripple effects into the world. How was the apple farmed? Who farmed it? Is it organic? Does an apple use more water than, say, a pile of almonds of the same weight? Does that make you a bad or ignorant person for not knowing the difference? And is there a difference?
Tahani could probably have been viewed as a brilliant and articulate philanthropist were it not for her relative obscurity, thanks to her savant sister casting her large shadow.
Eleanor was forced to contend with a family who oftentimes barely recognized her existence, and her years bouncing from friend to poor employment indicates a social subsistence, rather than any sort of well-being.
Jason lived in Florida!
In each of these characters, we laugh at and with them for their decisions, because we have made them ourselves. The kitchen sink of the comedic writing is paired with the kitchen sink culture of living in either a rich, poor, or Floridian environment.
A long time ago, in sophomore year of high school, I watched a made-for-TV version of Gulliver’s Travels, and it starred Ted Danson in the titular role. I loved that movie, and later on in my life after high school I watched it repeatedly, specifically for his performance.
Ted Danson feels to me to be the glue of The Good Place for his ability to give weight to plot turns, for his virtuosity to work with any joke, and for his calm and confident voice. Between him as Michael and D’Arcy Carden as Janet, I believe the two are the rock of the show. They provide the backstage pass to human behavior that we sorely needed. Had it just been the four characters duking it out, we would have been chuckling only slightly more than…say…Sartre’s No Exit.
But to see the scenes of Michael lamenting on frozen yogurt, or people trying to stuff cake into Janet’s closed mouth, is just priceless. And to me Danson conveys just as much the mischief of a demon with the childlike wonder of discovering what it is about humanity that is so alluring.
The Good Place will always have a spot in my heart because it managed to poke fun at human beings without diving into cynicism. It managed to ridicule our heady quest for ethics in a way that kept me watching. And the show as a whole is a profound critique on the ways we score other people and ourselves. It has some very real questions about why poverty exists, or why we view culture so hierarchically, or what the fundamental reasons for living should be. And for such high brow topics, the show never feels like it’s up its own ass. Quite the opposite: it will never resist the opportunity to poke fun at its plot, characters, and themes.
If for no other reason, watch it simply to laugh. But, once you’ve laughed, keep watching it to think.