My reasons for tuning into The Good Place were less than sophisticated. I’m a Kristen Bell fan from way back because she’s 5’1″ — like me — and able to pull off the leading lady role, something not often allowed on the screen, whether big or small. My initial interest may have been simple, but this comedy about the afterlife is much more than a star vehicle for a petite woman. Its philosophical complexity in the midst of a romping comedy impresses me from week to week. It’s a smarted-up (instead of dumbed-down) show repeatedly willing to destroy the very world it has created in order to keep pushing the boundaries of its ideas and the thinking of its audience.
Michael Schur, one of the minds behind Parks and Recreation, is the creator, giving you quick access to its quirky sensibility. The Good Place follows many of the expected beats of such shows with a loveable, 30-something, multi-racial cast and one-liners that kill such as: “It’s a rare occurrence, like a double rainbow or like someone on the internet saying, ‘you’ve convinced me, I was wrong.'” Beyond this humor, though, there are many unexpected elements within each episode as well as with the show’s overall structure. Through both form and content we learn that everyone has the ability to shape the world and the responsibility to do so in a way that considers more than what is good for us individually but instead what is best for the world and people around us. Perhaps it even forces us to consider, like Netflix’s Black Mirror does, if we need to expand our notions of the human in an ever increasingly technological world.
Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden cast photo.
Photo by NBC/Robert Trachtenberg/NBC – © 2016 NBCUniversal Media, LLC (IMDB)
In the first season, we learn that our four main characters, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto), are all dead and have gone to the “good place”. Michael (Ted Danson) is the architect of this particular neighborhood for its resident souls. So the idea of inventing a fictional universe and its rules, or “worldbuilding”, that necessarily must be the foundation of a sitcom about the afterlife, isn’t just on the level of Schur as creator. This built-in meta-fictional element of the creator behind the creator, is just the start of the questions we begin to ask about who is responsible for the world around us.
In this story, Michael, as the author/creator proxy, builds the afterlife neighborhood for the main characters, but using the technology-driven language common to this construction, he also “reboots” the inhabitants and the space in which they reside multiple times when his plans don’t work out. (Here are where the spoilers begin fast and furiously.) First, the world is understood as a good place; next, it is revealed that the good place is really Michael’s attempt to find a new version of torture for the main characters; then, we watch the world repeatedly rebooted in montage for most of an episode as Michael continues to fail to successfully torture the other characters; then, Michael decides to work with the main characters instead of against them to save himself from having his failures discovered; finally, they all get caught and go on a quest for another way into the “real” good place.
Sometimes the world is physically remade, but mostly what is being rebuilt is our perception of what existence looks like for these characters. And our views often shift with the characters, indicating just some of the power they have in relationship to the world around them.
The hidden premise of the show is inverting Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea in No Exit that “hell is other people”, or more accurately, that hell is seeing yourself from the viewpoint of others. Although the four main characters don’t know it at first, they’re locked together in what is supposed to be a hellish afterlife, but instead of responding to their afterlife with each other as hell, they build a sense of community and learn to see from others’ perspectives in order to better themselves. Or as Michael explains it, “I was just trying to prove that humans could be made to torture each other. Instead they helped each other and got better.”
As an architect, Michael can build up or take down houses with a wave of his hand that results in large, pixel-like flips—those moments of change sound like dominos falling and look like computer graphics. Nails don’t rip out of walls; instead, large blocks just disappear so that we are aware of the construct of the space. He has also designed a world that considers elements such as language, particularly in that characters can’t swear, echoing of course the builders of the major television networks and their FCC regulations. (I’m surprised “shirthole” wasn’t a common bowdlerization on the news of late.) The access to knowledge is also distinct in that characters can get any information they want from Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the non-human informational assistant. Other nice touches in worldbuilding include frozen yogurt flavors such as full cell phone battery, which gives you the relaxed feeling you have when your phone is charged. Every tiny nuance, we are told, has been considered by Michael, the worldbuilder within the narrative.
We trust this sense of worldbuilding, though, for only a brief time. Quickly, we learn that there’s another worldbuilder (and breaker) in Eleanor, whose bad behavior starts to affect the neighborhood. Chidi envokes the Deist clockmaker universe and mechanical philosophy when he states, “This place is a perfectly made Swiss watch, and you are a wrench in the gears. Actually, you’re a hammer just smashing the gears into dust.” Her negative behavior directly affects the world. Specifically, her actions seem to create a surreal, waking nightmare that overtakes the town where there are giant shrimp flying through the air after Eleanor stuffs them down her shirt at a party, there’s a huge sinkhole that appears when she smashes her fist through a cake (which closes up after she acts kindly toward Chidi) and, because of her racially ignorant mispronunciation of Chidi Anagoyna’s name, Ariana Grande is diegetically playing throughout the neighborhood. Here Chidi’s invocation of philosophy helps again: Aristotle stated that our actions are what make us good people. The show takes this concept a step further to show that our actions also affect the world around us. In other words, your actions not only make you a good person but also help you to create a good place.
This question about the relationship of the self to the world continues throughout the show with various moments where we think that Eleanor has significant control over her (after)life and other points where she seems to lack it. As Eleanor’s behavior changes, though, we also watch her world change, too. We may learn later that she wasn’t controlling everything she thought she was (the waking nightmare was not of her making), but Michael admits that there were many things that weren’t part of his plan. When Eleanor asks him, “How many times in all the reboots did I ask Chidi for help, he refused to help me and then I had to get better on my own?”, he has to respond, “Never. He always helped. No matter how I set it up, you found him, confessed you didn’t belong, asked him for help, and he said yes. Now his agreeing to help was part of my plan. What wasn’t part of my plan was it actually working.” Even in a rigged system Eleanor is able to affect the world around her.
Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop and Ted Danson as Michael in The Good Place (IMDB)
Eleanor, though, is not the only one who can upset the world, which would be the logical extension of the good person/good place idea since we don’t just live within a solipsistically driven space. Although Eleanor is the main lens through which we experience things, each of the other principal characters have moments where we are reminded that they too are affecting the world. Jason realizes that the good place is a new kind of hell, in one reboot, and, in another, declares his love for Janet, which changes things quite dramatically across reboots. Tahani recognizes her own solipsism as well as becomes a supportive friend to the other characters. Chidi is a major motivator for all of the other characters’ learning morality as he teaches them ethics. These are a few examples of how all of these characters are altering their own perceptions, themselves, and the afterlife.
In addition, we should not overlook how Janet and Michael play into this idea. Janet, as a nonhuman, affects the world in her initial role of worldbuilder alongside Michael. She announces their co-creator relationship early on: “I build and operate the neighborhood, but every aspect of the design is entirely up to you.” What this means, though, is that when Janet is feeling emotionally torn about Jason and Tahani getting together, she starts to cause rips in the fabric of the very reality she has helped to construct. Additionally, the very idea that she is able to fall in love with Jason in the first place points to Janet’s “evolution” with each reboot, taking her beyond the computer programming terminology most often used to describe how she functions. Although she repeatedly reminds the other characters that she is not a woman but also is not a robot, she begins to be seen by the others, and the viewer, as someone deserving of ethical care. When she is dealing with her emotions about Jason and protests that she is “Not a person”, Eleanor responds gently, “In this instance you sort of are.”
Oppositionally, we find Vicky (Tiya Sircar), a power-hungry demon, to be cruel and ignorant when she treats Janet as an interchangeable computer: “Can’t you just reset these things?” We see Vicky as flawed because she has not developed the same care toward Janet as the other characters have. Janet, too, is changing her own environment.
Similarly, Michael may be a demon, but the characters and we are rooting for him to find his moral grounding. In a touching episode that focuses on Janet and Michael’s relationship, Michael has to admit that he can’t turn Janet into a marble (effectively killing her) even though she might destroy the neighborhood because of her emotional “glitching” over Jason. When asked why he can’t do it, he says, “The reason is friends.” He has an emotional attachment to Janet, meaning that he recognizes her as someone worthy of care at the same time that he is demonstrating that he has feelings, too, and therefore should be worthy of care himself.
His feelings aren’t confined to Janet, however, and one of my favorite line deliveries is when Michael realizes that the four main characters have momentarily escaped detection and are safe: “You guys, I was so scared.” His emotions are plain, and he shows his embodiment of the human emotions of fear, pain, and loss, revealing that we may need to expand our definition of the human or question whether such emotions are only available to humans. Bringing Janet and Michael into the moral quandary demonstrates how this show is concerned with expanding ideas about ethics toward nonhumans, a concern clearly of our moment since it has also received popular reception in the technological near future of Black Mirror. Therefore, our ethical learning as viewers extends beyond the human both through our care for Janet and through Michael’s denaturalizing the human — putting ourselves at the center of things is no longer a given.
Of course, this fantasy narrative is also supposed to be adjusting the viewers’ perceptions as it reminds us of our own responsibilities on earth. The characters don’t know what’s ahead for them, but they’re learning that what they do matters for themselves and the others around them. They should endeavor to be good people to try to build a good place of their own making, just like in life, which the conclusion of the second season plays out directly by seemingly sending the main characters back to their lives on earth to see if they can become good people and create a better place around them without confirmation of a reward in the afterlife.
Schur himself has brought this idea into relief when asked in an Entertainment Weekly interview about the characters’ attempts to keep trying to reach the good place. He questions if the good place “really exists” and then adds: “But I think the show is taking the position that the most important aspect of these characters’ new lives in this new weird place that they are [in] is whether they’re trying. The details of the plot and how the plot actually plays out are obviously important [f]or the show, but for the characters, we’re focused on the idea that what’s important is that you try. That should be the very first level of trying to be a good person is you’ve got to try to be a good person, which seems reductive and silly, but it’s a very important and oft-overlooked thing. If you’re not trying, then forget it, you’re not even in the game. So, to get in the game, you’ve got to try.”
So while I first started to watch because of the mirror of myself I saw in Kristin Bell, the show is a reminder to look beyond the self and keep trying to be a better person toward others—a timely lesson given our current social and political climate. As Eleanor is reminded in this year’s season finalé, “The real question is what do we owe to each other?” Hopefully by understanding that “we are not in this alone”, there is a bit of an unexpected reward: a better place for us all, right here and now.