‘The Good Place’ has become the perfect antidote to the Trump eraOn October 28, 2017 by Maybell
Warning: There are spoilers below, but we’ll flag them before they arrive.
If you haven’t been obsessively watching The Good Place, you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. Maybe you’ve heard it’s a comedy about a mixup in the afterlife, and you’re expecting some sort of goofball network version of Heaven Can Wait.
On a surface level, the NBC show — now nearly halfway through season 2 — seems an inoffensive, pastel-colored sitcom. Billboards show Kristen Bell holding balloons above a cactus patch, for no apparent reason, while Ted Danson grins evilly. Tune in for a few minutes and you might see Bell making a joke about her own selfishness, or her love for all-you-can-eat shrimp.
But as Good Place aficionados (let’s call them “Goodies”) will tell you, the still-water sitcom surface level masks a show that runs increasingly deep. Way deep — taking ancient ethical debates as dry as dust and making them fresh and funny for a cynical world. Yes, even for the segment of the audience that prefers a good fart joke.
We can go so far as to say The Good Place is the show Trump’s America (not to mention Brexit Britain) needs most desperately right now. In a world where our leaders appear to have abandoned all pretense of morality and objective reality, where the entire edifice of the White House is built on the shifting sand of whatever the president decided was true this morning, we need the eternal truths of legend far more than we need another lying reality show.
For example, in the most recent episode, “Janet and Michael” — well, no spoilers, but we discover that a problem which could cause an apocalypse is all down to the original sin of one man’s lie.
That almost sounds like a religious allegory, and you can certainly take it that way — this is the afterlife, after all. But the situation is so surreal, the comedy so consistently zany, that secular viewers don’t even begin to feel a church pew beneath their butts. Sermonizers everywhere, take note.
We can’t get much deeper into what’s going on in this surprisingly twisty show without issuing a massive spoiler alert, so here goes. Newbies, consider catching up before you read the rest. (At 21 minutes per episode and 13 episodes a season, it’s easier to binge than, say, Stranger Things.)
In Season 1, Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell) believes she has been misplaced in the Good Place — a neighborhood of heaven, in effect, filled with frozen yogurt shops. She didn’t have the selfless, refugee-saving life that the Good Place boss, an apparent heavenly “architect” named Michael (Danson), seems to think she did.
Eleanor was a friendless disgrace of a human who scammed the impressionable and elderly with what was basically snake oil. That character remind you of anyone?
Unlike Trump, Eleanor enlists her supposed soul mate, an ethics professor named Chidi (William Jackson Harper), to teach her how to be good enough to not get thrown out of the Good Place. She wants to stop the parade of surreal disasters that seem to have been triggered by her presence.
But when the folks from the Bad Place arrive to take her downstairs, Eleanor figures it out — and we’ll insert one more spoiler alert here for the big reveal at the end of Season 1 coming up below.
Not only does Eleanor belong in the Bad Place — so does Chidi, because he allowed his knowledge of ethics to make him so indecisive that he failed to make any decisions in his life, basically putting his friends through hell. He’s the embodiment of that famous quote from conservative hero Edmund Burke: the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
Eleanor, Chidi and their equally selfish friends Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto) all belong in the Bad Place. Therefore, Eleanor reasons, this is the Bad Place, and all the other residents are fake people. At this, Ted Danson puts on his best evil cackle. She sussed it out.
He’s really a demon, and they’re being tortured for eternity. The anxiety of knowing they’re in the wrong place is part of the torture, as is the frozen yogurt. (Because, Michael revealed this week, it’s a thing you think you enjoy while still being “kind of a bummer.”)
With a snap of his fingers, Michael hits the reboot button and they’re all back to square one, without any memory of the evil things he did as recently as yesterday.
The devil in the details
Is there any setup in modern entertainment that’s more about 2017 without seeming like it’s about 2017?
Now, I’m not saying America is being tortured for what seems like eternity by a demon with a nasty grin. A thing in the shape of a man who wants to make us think we’re in a good place — a great place, even — to cover up the nature of his evil plan, which is to stress out everyone (save his demonic followers) as much as possible.
Nope, not saying that exactly. Just ask yourself this: if a demon like Michael were in charge of our real-life good place, would things look that much different than they do now?
Season 2: Getting Deeper
The Season 1 finale twist was so well hidden that not even the cast saw it coming. Critics and fans alike were awestruck, yet skeptical about whether showrunner Michael Schur (who also gave us the exquisite Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) could keep this up. (Cast member Jamil wonders that aloud in the Season 2 teaser, above.)
Michael had hit the reset button on Eleanor and her gang’s memories — would that mean Season 2 was going to be a stale rerun, Season 1 with slightly different jokes?
In reply, the showrunner gave us a couple opening episodes where the gang’s memories were wiped again and again. And again. And again and again. They took a clue Eleanor had written herself at the end of Season 1, something we all expected would amount to something way down the line, and tossed it in the trash.
It didn’t matter. Eleanor always figured out Michael’s schemes, just as we can always see right through Trump to whatever he is trying to distract us from. Every reset button attempt became wilder, weirder, more desperate.
Schur basically gave us the highlights of an imagined next 10 seasons of this show (if it had been a lesser, more repetitive sitcom), all in less than an hour. They burned through every possible idea, then melted down the entire premise.
Michael, Eleanor and the gang were now all on the same side, an alliance of convenience against some even nastier demons who’d taken over the whole torture experiment.
That put Michael, working undercover and pretending they’d all lost their memories again, in Chidi’s ethics class. Which set the stage for three episodes in a row that have contained the show’s most philosophically enrapturing scenes.
First came “Existential Crisis,” in which Michael is forced to contemplate that he may be executed if it’s discovered that he’s working with the enemy. A formerly immortal being confronts death for the first time, and it turns into the mother of all midlife crises.
“He basically smoked a big bowl of ennui,” says Eleanor — a line that is quintessential Good Place, highbrow and lowbrow all at once. But it’s the speech she gives to snap him out of it that makes the episode really shine. Her simple Shellstrop-style explanation of ever-present death should be taught in schools as a tool to confront our own existential crises.
“The Trolley Problem” came next, an episode that had ethics professors doing cartwheels of joy. The famous thought experiment — you’re on an out-of-control trolley, you can either kill 5 people on one track or switch tracks and kill one — can and has been done to death in philosophy courses. There have been infinite variations: for example, what if the one person is your best friend?
But never before has it been represented on screen before, done with actual death, with the blood of the victims splattered all over the face of the tram operator. Michael put Chidi in that position to torture him, and because it wasn’t real, a dream within an afterlife, we were able to laugh. And also think.
A further spoiler alert: At the end of the episode, Michael confesses he tortured Chidi with anxiety because he’s still having an existential crisis and is crying for help. It’s too much to ask that the leader of the free world have the same realization, but the show holds out hope: even demons can see the error of their ways.
That’s the thing about the afterlife; done right, there are endless opportunities for new plots, new characters (we got another at the end of “Michael and Janet”), new explorations of what it means to be human. A story set in the Good or Bad Place of the great beyond is in the best place to comment on our world — something known by Dante (The Divine Comedy) Milton (Paradise Lost) and Oscar Wilde (The House of Judgment, one of the best short short stories ever written).
I’m not saying Michael Schur (or his great writer’s room, which includes Twitter legend Megan Amram) are our modern day Dantes, Miltons or Wildes. But they are giving America an ethical and moral center, making our brains work at a time when social media is sucking our attention spans dry.
And because they’re presenting us with the true nature of things, which is a risky proposition in any era, they are also making it as funny as hell. And God only knows, we need some worthwhile laughs right now.
Strap in, folks. This trolley ride to Thoughtville via Joketown is only just leaving the station.
The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.