NBC’s comedy “The Good Place” asks its viewers to believe three things for each episode’s 20-minute span. First, that the afterlife is like the aftermath of a video game, with each human having either enough points to be sent to the Good Place, a shiny, green-grassed heaven, or enough of a point debt to be sent to “The Bad Place,” a conventional, if bureaucratic, fiery nightmare. Second, that God is Maya Rudolph. Third, that even the worst humans are capable of goodness, that goodness is difficult and that the most important choice we can make is whether or not to try anyway.
Unsurprisingly, media outlets are clamoring to find new ways to say that “The Good Place” is “the ethics lesson America needs right now.” This kind of cheerfulness, presented in the form of a forced antidote, has become difficult to swallow. If it’s hard to buy into showrunner Michael Schur’s imagined rules for the afterlife — no cursing, endless shrimp buffets — it’s harder still to assume the best of our species when outside of “The Good Place,” with Ted Danson and Kristen Bell’s sarcastic, rapid-fire riffing, we’re running dangerously low on evidence that any place is a good place, or that goodness exists at all.
Luckily, “The Good Place” isn’t about innate goodness; in fact, take or leave these three tenets. To watch this show and enjoy it, you simply have to believe that all humans have is each other. Everything meaningful, good and bad, stems from there.
The premise is this: In season one, “Arizona dirtbag” Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell) dies and is sent to the Good Place by mistake, where an “architect” of Heaven named Michael (Danson) awaits with her supposed “soul mate,” Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), a moral philosophy professor. Eleanor, in a desperate attempt to avoid being sent to the Bad Place, asks Chidi to teach her to be good. Along the way, they meet idiotic Floridian DJ Jason (Manny Jacinto) and vain socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), another “soul mate” pair.
At the end of season one, after Eleanor, Jason and Tahani have sunk their teeth into Aristotle, Plato and Kant in an attempt to distill goodness into an understandable formula, Eleanor discovers that (spoiler!) the four aren’t in heaven but a hell built to look like it, and that they have been particularly selected to drive each other insane. (It’s Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” on steroids.)
This plot twist, darkly funny and punctuated by a fabulous evil chuckle from Danson, almost overshadows the season’s most surprising development: that these four flawed humans, damned by an afterlife built to destroy them, genuinely changed, and perhaps even improved each other. Season two explores what this discovery means as Michael tries and fails to build a hell that will hold them.
“They were bad people,” Michael tells his (literally) demonic boss after the collapse of his experiment and the obvious improvement of the humans. “This is not supposed to be possible. So, the only explanation is that somehow, there was a mistake made, and these people belong in the Good Place.”
What Michael cannot understand, of course, is that he can send Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason anywhere — Good Place, Bad Place — and everywhere; they will be each other’s torture and salvation. Chidi will provide Eleanor with philosophical rules, Eleanor will mock and forget and absorb them, and each will become someone different. Michael’s mistake was in missing the fact that salvation, torture and the more mundane, equally messy ways we connect to our fellow human beings all end up being the same.
Season three, which began on Sept. 27, sets up a test, sanctioned by Rudolph: Whether or not the humans can become good on Earth before knowing anything about the afterlife, and then remain good once (spoiler part two!) they re-discover its existence and, by doing so, ensure their inevitable damnation. In the season two finale, Michael, posing as a bartender, visits an Eleanor on the cusp of failing the test with the intention of pushing her in the right direction.
“I gotta go home,” she says drunkenly. “What do I owe ya?”
Repeating the show’s favorite refrain, philosopher T.M. Scanlon’s impossible query, Michael asks: “The real question, Eleanor, is what do we owe to each other?”
Schur tells us, as Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason become entwined in endless loops of the afterlife, that the answer is “everything.”
“The six of us are not getting into the Good Place,” Eleanor says in a season three speech. “But there are still people in this world we care about, so I say we try and help them be good people, try and help them get in. I mean, why not try?” Then, more desperately: “It’s better than not trying.”
This is not the easy, optimistic solution to the Trump era that the media craves. “The Good Place,” far from being the ray of sunshine “we need right now,” revolutionarily posits that there is no place or person that is innately “good” or “bad.” It’s not that Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason were ever “bad” enough for the Bad Place, but rather that the terminology itself is flawed. Perhaps goodness and badness are the words we use to simplify the bitterest pill of all in an age of “soul-searching,” “self-care” and “self-love”: We are only the sum of what we give to, and take from, those around us. Any newspaper could give you a hundred reasons as to why that’s horrifying.
The miraculous punchline of the show is that even now, more often than not, life and death mean something anyway.
Nicole Blackwood | firstname.lastname@example.org .