The Good Place: A Mind Bending Exploration of Life After Death
When people die, there are two places they can end up. Most go to The Bad Place. Eleanor Shellstrop was one of the kindest, most helpful people in existence, and so earned her spot in The Good Place.
Only one problem: due to a cosmic mix-up, Eleanor was sort of a horrible person. Heaven isn’t equipped to deal with sin, and mutates every time she performs a bad deed. Now Eleanor must find a way to hide the truth, avoid an eternity of torture, and learn how to genuinely become a good human being.
Created by Michael Schur, one of the minds behind sitcoms Brooklyn 99 and Parks and Rec, The Good Place is a bit of a different beast. There are undeniably similarities to his past works, being primarily comedic, with most of the laughs still stemming from the highly exaggerated characters. However, those shows were mainly episodic, with fairly loose narratives aside from the occasional season-long story arc. This show, however, is extremely serialized, with episodes all leading directly into each other. A rarity for American television, Schur even specifically limited each season to only thirteen episodes in order to maintain the tightly-knitted story. I binged through the show over the past week, and it left me grinning at its sparkling jokes and well executed twists.
In episode one, the audience and Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell) are introduced to The Good Place by Michael, an ‘Architect’ who was tasked with creating this little neighborhood of eternity. This is his first solo design, you see, and he’s ever so excited to get it just perfect! He’s fiddled to get everything right, from a menu of metaphysical frozen yogurt flavors to pairing everyone up their destined soul-mates. Through Michael Ted Danson provides a bubbly, energetic performance which is incredibly likeable, delivering an human-fanboy angel who is just so gosh darned happy to get to hang out with humans!
The supporting cast is excellent too — not to mention wonderfully diverse. Eleanor’s supposed soul-mate is Chidi, a professor in morality and ethics, who she quickly recruits into helping hide her secret. Chidi is genuinely caring and considerate, but also an anxious mess, and the fact that Eleanor’s very presence in the Good Place is causing it to fall apart leaves him in the middle of a moral knot.
Living next to them is Tahani, a wealthy British philanthropist. She’s a little condescending but otherwise apparently perfect in every way… but is secretly struggling to connect with her own soulmate, Jianyu, a Buddhist monk who has sworn himself to a vow of silence. Rounding out the main characters is my personal favourite, Janet: not a human, not a girl, not a robot. It’s not clear what she is, exactly — a sentient database of all knowledge in the universe? — but her facade of humanity makes her hilarious.
Being surrounded by such wonderful people grates on Eleanor, bringing out her insecurities at her own moral failings. The writers very successfully balance on a tightrope with her character, creating someone a person who was genuinely
shitty shirty (no one in this afterlife can swear), allowing the audience to always feel morally superior to her. But even if she was selling fake medicine to old people or insulting random bystanders, those rare moments of kindness are enough to keep us rooting for her… at least enough not to want her doomed to Hell.
While Parks and Rec got its edge from its political satire, The Good Place gets its own from questions of cosmic morality. How exactly do you measure a person’s goodness? Is there a quantifiable, universal way to score each individual action as good or bad? And can a deed truly be good if the motivation behind it is selfish? While perhaps it’s fair to damn humanity’s worst criminals to eternal torture (“Fun fact! Columbus is in the Bad Place because of all the raping, slave trade, and genocide!”), what about everyone else? Eleanor is quick to point out that 99.99% of humanity are irrevocably damned, and that there should be a Medium Place for those who lived medium lives.
Is the show perfect? Hardly. Much like its characters, its flawed. Structurally, it takes a while to build up. After providing some lovely world building in the very first episode, the pace slows a bit, with a few more formulaic episodes with some rather predictable lessons. Also, while Chidi’s lessons on different philosophers’ approaches to ethics are thematically relevant and provide some good jokes, personally I found it kind of odd that the characters would be focusing on these different theories where there apparently really exists a universal metric of goodness the heavens use to evaluate everyone.
Something else that pricks at me a little bit is the question of Eleanor’s sexuality. She and Tahani become increasingly close as the narrative progresses, and Eleanor in particular has a habit of maybe-flirting with her, calling her ‘gorgeous’ and ‘hot stuff’. However, it’s never been explicitly stated whether the two are actually bi or pan, and with the show seemingly committing to Eleanor/Chidi (a lovely relationship in its own right), it’s likely it might always remain in nebulous grey area of maybe-representation-maybe-queerbaiting.
These are all just minor quibbles, however. There is a lot to love in The Good Place, even if I can’t share most of it because of spoilers. But are you looking for fun, dynamic characters? A clever story-line that’s clearly been well thought out? A quirky comedy that’s not afraid to throw away the status quo? Then I encourage you to check it out.
Author: Laura B
Lover of fantasy and science fiction, fascinated in how they impact the real world. Professional writer and science communicator.
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