Television

You'll Never Make It Alone: On Groups in 'The Good Place'

Ted Danson as Michael (aka the 6,000-foot tall fire squid) in The Good Place (IMDB)

What happens when you put an Arizona dirtbag, a human turtleneck, a narcissistic monster, and the dumbest person you've ever met in the same room? They become good people, sure, but more importantly, they become a group.

NBC's The Good Place asks a lot of questions. The two most obvious are, What does it mean to be good? and What matters more, whether people are actually good, or that they're trying to become better?

There are also less obvious questions the show raises, questions that have nothing to do with being a good or bad person, or better or worse than another. The main characters in The Good Place -- Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil ( Jameela Jamil), Jason Mendoza (Many Mancito), Michael (Ted Danson) and Janet (D'Arcy Carden) -- form a tightly knit group, which develops and changes over time. For most of the show, they act as a unified whole that works together in trying to fight a common enemy or in trying to overcome their individual flaws (in itself another "enemy"). So, The Good Place also asks questions about the nature of groups.

How does a group form? How does the group, as a whole, interact with the individuals of the group? How do the dynamics of groups in general affect The Good Place in particular? These questions are more important to the show than the explicit ones introduced above. Answering these questions can give an alternative reading of the series and reveal hidden tensions within it.

I use the theories of the psychotherapist Wilfred Bion as a roadmap to opening these tensions. Analysis surrounding The Good Place has been largely focused on looking at the moral philosophy of the show and the existentialist works that seem to be its inspiration (specifically Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit). To extend the roadmap metaphor, all roads in The Good Place have, for the most part, led to the same destination.

To see a new dynamic in the show -- one that threatens to undermine the moral position it takes -- it's necessary to depart from the philosophical canon it attempts to seduce us with; it's necessary to break the tradition. Psychoanalysis has a history of showing a hidden side to dominant narratives (e.g., Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents); as such, it is the perfect tool to seeing the hidden side of a TV series, and Bion's work, being the psychoanalyst of groups, is a perfect guide for considering The Good Place.


Angel Wings by Zorro4 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Bion was a British psychotherapist who first gained notoriety in the 1960s for his work in group therapy. In 1961 he published Experiences in Groups, wherein he argues that all groups have two aspects to them. On the one hand, according to Bion, all groups meet to "do" something, to achieve some common goal, and the mental activity that is concerned with achieving this goal is what Bion called the Work Group (p. 143). On the other, there are unconscious tendencies towards structuring the group in certain ways, which ends up blocking the activity of the Work Group. This aspect he calls the Basic Assumption Group (p. 146).

Though there are other terms to Bion's theory of groups, such as "proto-mental phenomena" (p. 101) and "culture of the group" (p. 55), I don't think these more technical concepts are needed to analyze how group functioning works in The Good Place. The Work Group and The Basic Assumption Group are all we need for our purposes.

Bion identifies three basic assumptions, three structures that the group can tend towards: Dependency, Fight-Flight, and Pairing. Dependency is a group where there is a leader who is seen as "omnipotent" (pp. 37, 38); each person can rely on the leader, with there being no meaningful contribution to the group from anyone besides the leader (p. 78). Fight-Flight is a group structured around running away from or fighting against some external enemy (p. 152). Pairing is a group which hopes for something new to be produced, which will "save" the group (p. 155). Each of these Basic Assumption Groups gets in the way of the goal that the Work Group sets for itself (p. 146).

One of the main points of Bion's theory is that the Basic Assumption Group must maintain a sort of "status quo" (p. 155); the Dependent Group can never actually be satisfied by the omnipotent leader, the Fight-Flight group can never actually get rid of its enemy, and the pairing group can never actually bring about the new thing that will save it. All of these hopes must remain hopes and nothing more, because the group defines itself in terms of these basic assumptions, so having them satisfied would result in the dissolution of the group (pp. 63, 64, 86).

My first comparison between Bion and The Good Place is this paradoxical element of the group, this dynamic of holding a certain goal which must remain unfulfilled, a dynamic constantly seen in the series. If we think about one of the first groups to form, the group of Eleanor Shellstrop, Jason Mendoza, and Chidi Anagonye, it formed primarily to escape being found out, to "run away" from the judgment of Michael, who at this point is believed to be a representative of The Good Place. Of course, it also formed with the intention of making Eleanor and Jason better people, but initially, this aim is only a means to escape punishment by The Bad Place. However, in order to escape The Bad Place, one must be good, and in order to be truly good, one must not be motivated by self-interest. The problem becomes clear; so long as their goal is to escape The Bad Place they can never actually escape The Bad Place.

William Jackson Harper, Kristen Bell, Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto in "Pandemonium" (IMDB)

On a more basic level, fearing the external enemy or the bad situation to come is something that takes a lot of energy, which might have been spent more productively. Often times, one or more members of the group becomes overwhelmed by the sense of powerlessness this fear gives them, and is consequently "paralyzed", so to speak, unable to contribute to the Work Group in any meaningful way.

This is what happens in the episode "Pandemonium" (aired 24 January 2019). To give context, before this episode, Michael has been fighting a court case with Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph), as to whether the four humans in his original neighborhood deserve to be in The Bad Place. Judge Gen's position is that the point system, which determines whether one is deserving of The Bad Place or The Good Place, clearly indicates that they did not gain enough points on Earth to enter The Good Place.

Michael's argument is that the point system is fundamentally flawed, because it doesn't take into account the fact that people can improve or that circumstances may make it harder for someone to do good deeds. He argues that they should be allowed to enter The Good Place on the grounds that they improved and that, given the right conditions, anyone would improve. In his view, the point system's failure to take these factors into account has resulted in millions of people being unjustly tortured in The Bad Place, because they were deemed to be worse human beings than they actually were.

Eventually, Judge Gen rules that four random humans be placed in Michael's neighborhood to see if they can improve themselves; if they improve, Michael will win his court case against The Bad Place, and the entire heavenly bureaucracy will be revised. If they don't, he and his pals will be tortured for eternity.

Now that there's context, in "Pandemonium", at the start of the experiment, Shawn (the leader of The Bad Place, played by Marc Evan Jackson) calls Michael to inform him that he has found a perfect way to torture his friends once his experiment fails. Shawn reveals that he has been able to make an impostor Michael suit (in the lore of the show, Michael is actually a 6,000-foot tall "fire squid", squished into a human suit), which will be used to make it seem like Michael himself is torturing his friends.

How does Michael (the real Michael) respond? He gives up, lays on the floor and cries. Why?

Of course, he doesn't want his friends to be tortured and he certainly doesn't want them to think he's the one torturing them. But there's more to his despair. He wouldn't be on the ground in the first place if he thought he had a good chance of succeeding. The odds are stacked against him. For one thing, Michael has to tailor the lives of four individuals perfectly, while keeping it secret from them that is what he is doing -- something he has already failed at 802 times with the four people in his original neighborhood. Shawn has the upper hand; he can just sit back and watch Michael fail again at no effort to himself.

The Bad Place only has to make a relatively small amount of interference for the experiment to go awry. This happens in the episode "Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy" (aired 17 October 2019), where it's revealed that the test subjects have not been improving for weeks, solely because of a single bad Janet, who had successfully disguised herself as a good Janet. To make matters worse, Michael can't even be consoled by the fact his friends will know an impostor is torturing them because Shawn will erase their memories of Michael explaining the situation to them.

There's a huge difference between wanting to stop a situation from coming about and fearing that it will come about, and because Michael is so involved in the latter scenario, his fear of the perceived impossibility of the situation stops him from successfully preventing the situation.

For the most part, the main characters of The Good Place form a Fight-Flight Group, as they are always trying to "run away" from something, whether it be an actual person or a possible outcome. Indeed, there are many other parallels that can be drawn between Bion's Fight-Flight Group and the main group which forms The Good Place.

For example, Bion says the group often has a sense of paranoia (many times the leader themselves are paranoid) (p. 67), because paranoia helps to make the enemy feel more real. It's a form of motivation.

Isn't this the function of Chidi, to make the enemy feel more real, to have something analogous to paranoia in himself which he instills in the other members of the group? He's always fearing that he'll do terrible things just by making one mistake. The outcome of a "wrong decision" waits just around the corner at all times. His indecision is a result of this fear, and he implants this fear in everyone else; before every choice the group has to make, Chidi always has to say "wait", always has to explain why what they're about to do isn't ethical, which ultimately reminds the group of just how difficult it is to do the right thing. He serves to remind the group not just that they must avoid being bad, but that it is almost impossible to be good.

Kirby Howell-Baptiste, William Jackson Harper and Benjamin Koldyke in "Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy" (IMDB)

Chidi serves as a prime example of another dynamic that runs dominant throughout the show, which is how fear and uncertainty play off of each other. As a strict Kantian, Chidi is someone who believes in absolute moral principles, which must be followed no matter the circumstance. He is not a Kantian just because he thinks it's the theory that makes the most sense. No. He's a Kantian, because that means that he will always know what is the right thing to do; he doesn't subscribe to other moral theories, simply because he doesn't have the capacity to do so . In his fear of being uncertain about what's right, he succumbs to rigid moral principles to stave off that fear.

This is the dynamic that we see with multiple characters; they all deal with their uncertainty by displacing their responsibility to someone else, by having someone else make decisions for them, who they can supposedly have faith in. Chidi does this with his principles; Eleanor does this with Chidi, and Michael does this with every person he turns to, to help him with his court case.

In the episode "Janet(s)" (aired 6 December 2018), Janet at one point even has to tell Michael, "We keep wandering around these different realms, expecting someone else to have the answer, but no one ever does." The only way for the group to develop in the show is for them to each confront their individual uncertainty, to deal with it themselves.

This dynamic is what Bion called the "hatred of learning by experience". According to Bion, the Basic Assumption Group has little faith in the value of any knowledge gained in that way. It compares the state of having to learn with the state of coming fully equipped with whatever needs to be known, and instead chooses to see people as embodying this state (p. 86).

The characters' displacement of uncertainty onto another is a reflection of this unconscious hatred; they assume there is someone or something who already knows, because it comforts them by giving them a way out of the possibility of having to actually do the work themselves. They know something is wrong with The Good Place as a whole, and for some reason, still expect representatives of The Good Place to help them. It is clear they have an extreme tendency to avoid any process of development when it comes to this flaw, and I would argue it's the one they overcome last.

D'Arcy Carden as Bad Janet in "Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy" (IMDB)

It was only a few episodes before the finalé, in "The Answer" (aired 21 November 2019) that Chidi wrote to himself, "there is no answer".

As we've already seen, the group must give up its goal of escaping if it's ever to achieve its goal of escaping. It's not only that goal though; the goal of self preservation more generally (which Bion says is the ultimate goal of all Basic Assumption Groups (p. 63)) must be given up if the Work Group is ever to succeed.

To make the point, look at what happens in the third season, starting in "Everything is Bonzer!" (aired 27 September 2018); the four original humans (Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi, and Jason) have their memories of the afterlife erased and are given a second chance to live a good life on Earth. They do become better people, but the question is when in these second lives do they become better people?

It's only after the end of "The Snowplow" (aired 11 October 2018) that they do so. Up until this point, Michael and Janet have been monitoring their progress on Earth and have illegally gone there anytime it seemed like they were about to become bad people again. At one point, all four of the human characters are at a party, and they overhear Michael and Janet explain the entire afterlife, which guarantees their fate to The Bad Place.

They become better people only after they accidentally hear Michael talk about the afterlife, and only after they learn they're all doomed to Hell anyway. Responding to this, they think, "Well, let's at least try to make other people's lives better", and go on trying to help those who are closest to them. They only develop once their concern for self-preservation is completely eradicated.

This brings us to a tension in the philosophy that the show portrays; the show is based around the common ideology of self-improvement, which is Become a better version of yourself today than you were yesterday. But oddly enough, in order to improve yourself, you must forego any concern for yourself.

William Jackson Harper and Kristen Bell in "The Answer" (IMDB)

Now, I do think the structure of the group changes at some point. Once the group, in the final season, is focused on the experiment to see if people can improve, the basic assumption changes from Fight-Flight to what Bion called the "dual" of Dependency.

Dependency is the assumption that all members can be provided for by an omnipotent leader, whereas the "dual" of Dependency is that all members of the group themselves provide for the same entity (pp. 119 - 122). After Michael's break down in the episode mentioned above, Eleanor becomes the official leader of the group, since the experiment must continue. Once this change happens, the group shifts to this basic assumption, trying to provide for the test subjects.

At some level, the group "babies" the tests subjects, acting in ways which really go against their belief that humans can improveon their own (provided with the right "push"). They tailor almost every aspect of their lives, almost as if they're actually skeptical of how good they can become. At the same time, any sign they don't improve is explained away by interference from The Bad Place.

Aside from what happened in "Janet(s)", see "A Girl from Arizona" (aired 26 September 2019), where it turns out that one of the four test subjects is actually an undercover demon sent to sabotage the experiment.

This opens up the ultimate tension hidden in the show: the show wants to see people as fundamentally good, as capable of improvement, and whenever someone does improve, the credit goes to them. The show says look at how strong Eleanor is as a person; look at how she confronted herself, and became good.

However, if someone is not good, it's not treated as something that should be accredited to the person, but instead as something that happens because they had a hard life or because they never were shown "love and kindness", as Michael says in "The Funeral to End All Funerals" (aired 14 November 2019). Good is seen as part of human nature and bad is seen only as something that can happen by circumstance. The show wants to convey that people can become good, but explains away any serious consideration that people aren't already good.

Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil and Kristen Bell in "A Girl from Arizona" (IMDB)

In psychoanalysis, this is called "splitting". Something has both good and bad qualities inherent to it, but these qualities are "split"; one side (in this case, the good side) is taken as inherent to the thing, and the other side is explained as coming from some other source (on the concept of splitting, see Chapter 4 of Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black's Freud and Beyond)

Bion says that splitting is inherent to all groups; because we want to preserve the group, we see all the good qualities in the group as inherent to the group, and see all the bad qualities inherent in the group as coming from our own individual deficiencies or somewhere else. Then, since what is bad is projected onto something else, we try to run away from that something else and take refuge in the supposedly all good group (see pages 94, 95 & 164). This never works, because the group was never actually all good, but only all good in our phantasy.

From all that has been said, we can say two things about The Good Place:

First, it has a hidden layer below being about good and bad. It's about groups and how they function, and clearly shows tensions inherent to all groups. The show doesn't convey that humans can become good, it declares that they can become good in groups, that the Work Group, despite all that's working against it, can still succeed.

Second, the show, to the extent that it does talk about good and bad, has too simple of an understanding of these concepts. It can only see people as either good or bad, and has to see one as inherent while explaining away the other. This is not how things are in reality; in reality, people are both good and bad at the same time. To make the point with a Biblical reference, the person who was "a man after God's own heart" was the same person who had Uriah killed for a hookup.

We can end by saying that it would greatly benefit all members in The Good Place if they used psychoanalysis.

* * *

Works Cited:

Bion, Wilfred. Experiences in Groups. Tavistock Publishing Limited, 1961.
Black, Margaret & Mitchell, Stephen. Freud and Beyond. Basic Books, 1995.

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