An Ode to “The Good Place”

It’s not often that a sitcom makes you both laugh out loud and ponder on moral philosophy, but NBC’s The Good Place (2016) does it with such ease and delight. Created by Michael Schur (same dude who created Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, so you can trust he knows what he’s doing), The Good Place is a fantasy sitcom centered around four humans each equipped with their own mortal flaws navigating heaven — or as it’s known in the show, the Good Place.

The premise of the show is that the main character Eleanor is in the Good Place by accident, and convinces Chidi the ethics professor to teach her how to be a good person so she can safely reside in the Good Place. Because of this, the show is packed with some elaborate discussions on moral philosophy, including but not limited to a whole episode dedicated to the famous Trolley Problem.

What sets apart The Good Place from other sitcoms is that while shows like Parks and Rec or Brooklyn Nine-Nine allow you to lay back and enjoy them without having to work your brain, The Good Place urges you to think and makes you laugh through gems like this:

The coexistence of light-hearted humor and a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a good person is unlike any show that has come before it, and is ultimately the true strength of The Good Place

Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the show!

The narrative of The Good Place centers around a number of brilliantly executed plot twists, such as when Jianyu reveals he’s actually Jason, or when Eleanor figures out they’ve been in the Bad Place all along. However, I’m going to focus on the two reveals that come in the later seasons and concern increasingly complex existential and moral questions.

In season 3 we find out nobody’s gotten into the Good Place in more than 500 years. This is due to the Afterlife’s flawed point system; even an innocent action such as buying an apple from Whole Foods results in negative points because the world has gotten infinitely more complicated. Michael outlines this perfectly in the episode entitled “The Book of Dougs”:

“In 1534, Douglass Wynegar of Hawkhurst, England, gave his grandmother roses for her birthday. He picked them himself, walked them over to her, she was happy . . . boom, 145 points. Now, in 2009, Doug Ewing of Scaggsville, Maryland, also gave his grandmother a dozen roses, but he lost four points. Why? Because he ordered roses using a cell phone that was made in a sweatshop. The flowers were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered from thousands of miles away, which created a massive carbon footprint, and his money went to a billionaire racist CEO who sends his female employees pictures of his genitals.”

People haven’t been getting into the Good Place because as Tahani says, “there are so many unintended consequences to well-intended actions! It feels like a game you can’t win”. This is a very acute observation on Schur’s part of what it’s like to live in the highly globalized setting of the 21st century. We can try our best to avoid these unintended consequences but it’s ultimately futile because of how interdependent the global economy has become. Take the example of climate change: not one person can completely avoid having a negative impact on the environment, but what we can do is minimize our individual effect as much as we can, which is what The Good Place also suggests. The new system that Michael and the gang come up with is to put new arrivals to the Afterlife through a series of tests which will present them with the opportunity to better themselves while equipping them with the right tools to do so. If and when they improve their point total, they move on to the Good Place. When the gang try out the new system, they find that doing good deeds for the sake of earning points doesn’t take; it has to come from a place of true altruism. Ultimately, the fact that the new system works goes to show that when people are given the right support they can and will improve themselves and actively choose to be good. 

Let’s take Eleanor as an example: on earth, she was neglected by her parents and grew up to be independent to the point of being self-centered and rude, having an “I don’t owe you anything” attitude. However, in the Afterlife, thanks to her friendships with Jason, Tahani and Chidi, she receives the support and love she lacked on earth and earnestly strives to become a good person. According to the new system, it’s not fair to hold it against people like Eleanor who do not have access to this love and support that is crucial in prompting moral growth. It’s less about who people are, and more about what they are capable of doing.

“What matters isn’t if people are good or bad. What matters is if they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday.”

— Michael

The second twist I’m concerned with comes at the end of the entire series when the gang finally get to go to the Good Place for real. However, there’s one small problem; it turns out the Good Place isn’t all that. At all. Due to the infinite source of sheer happiness and ecstasy, Good Place residents’ brains have pretty much all turned to mush. Apparently, being able to have and do anything you could ever possibly want is insanely damaging to your brain!

Once in the Good Place, Chidi encounters Hypatia of Alexandria[1] and she tells the gang:

“You get here and you realize that anything’s possible, and you do everything, and then you’re done. But you still have infinity left. This place kills fun. And passion. And excitement. And love. Until all you have left are milkshakes.”

So, our beloved humans (plus one demon and one all-knowing not-girl) do what they do best: fix things. They make it so that you can choose to leave the Good Place, walk through a door and have your essence returned to the universe whenever you feel like it’s time. The aptly titled episode, “Whenever You’re Ready”, gives us the ultimate lesson of the show: that life is meaningful because it’s finite. What’s beautiful and lovable is only those things because it ends.

“[Eleanor] said that every human is a little bit sad all the time, because you know you’re going to die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.”

— Michael

However, some people disagree with the particular stance that the show takes on immortality. One of them, namely Pamela Hieronymi, was a philosophy advisor for the show and cameoed in the finale. She said: “I don’t understand why you would think that removing the limit of life would suddenly deprive it of meaning”. She thought that Tahani’s was the best choice and that the show should have ended with the characters in an “ongoing process of becoming better [themselves] and then facing the challenges of also helping other people as they come in”. In this specific situation, Tahani becomes what is called in Mahayana Buddhism a bodhisattva — someone who is able to achieve nirvana, but delays doing so in order to help others.

As Tahani’s chosen path was also a viable option for the rest of the gang, the fact that they all walked through the door seems to some viewers as a bleak note to end on. This raises the question of whether or not walking through the door is selfish or self-destruction. The emotional core of the show is that the main characters have all formed meaningful, interdependent relationships, and for any of them to choose to leave their loved-ones behind in pursuit of the termination of their existence seems to send a message of hopelessness. This article on The Atlantic argues that in the end, “beautiful relationships do not turn out to provide unending nourishment; the pain caused to those left behind does not outweigh the prerogative to leave”. During their time in not just the Good Place but in the Afterlife in its entirety, all of the characters in the show turn their greatest flaws into their greatest virtues. Tahani, who constantly bragged about her fake philanthropy, decides to study to become an Architect so she can help others improve in the Afterlife. Chidi, who originally died of indecisiveness, is the first one of the group to pass through the door, confident of his decision. Jason, whose personally-tailored idea of hell was to live in silence as a monk, spends a thousand bearimys (the unit of time in the Afterlife) meditating and contemplating “the infinity of the universe” while he waits for Janet to return. Eleanor, who was incredibly selfish and self-serving on earth, helps all her friends and even Mindy achieve their goals before deciding to go herself. The main characters’ gradual development into the best versions of themselves is in great part due to the incredible love and support they provide for and receive from each other, so this raises the question of whether or not it is really necessary for them to leave after all.

The article goes on to say that “in a complex and infinite timescale, the logic of sticking around would remain the same as it is on Earth: you don’t know what happens next, you’re bound to others, change is possible, and this existence might be all you get”. This rings true especially considering Eleanor’s speech to Chidi accepting that she needs to let him go. She quotes from T. M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other, which was both an inspiration to Schur and is featured heavily in the show:

“Working out the terms of moral justification is an unending task . . . The whole book is about how we should try to find rules other people can’t reasonably reject, and then he ends it by saying, ‘the search for how to find those rules will go on forever’.”

This raises another question: is change and self-growth possible in the Good Place? One argument is that the reason people like Hypatia were reduced to near-zombies in the old Good Place was that there was no source of external or internal conflict to promote this change and self-growth; everything was too perfect. However, the above quote suggests that moral evolution is never-ending and possible everywhere including in the Good Place. After all, Eleanor goes from doing everything within her power to convince Chidi to stay to respecting his choice and selflessly letting him do what he wants to do. So why go through the door? Is doing so self-destruction or self-actualization? 

Truth is, we don’t actually know the answers to these questions, and we’re not meant to. In the season three finale “Pandemonium”, Eleanor and Janet have a heart-to-heart about the meaning (or rather lack thereof) of life:

Eleanor: Can you just, you know, like, tell me the answer? You know, the answer to everything. You know all there is to know in the universe. Crunch the numbers. Tell me the answer. What’s the point of love if it’s just gonna disappear? And how is it worse to not love anybody? There has to be meaning to existence, otherwise the universe is just made of pain, and I don’t like the thought of that, so tell me the answer.

Janet: If there were an answer I could give you to how the universe works, it wouldn’t be special. It would just be machinery fulfilling its cosmic design. It would just be a big, dumb food processor. But since nothing seems to make sense, when you find something or someone that does, it’s euphoria. In all this randomness and this pandemonium, you and Chidi found each other, and you had a life together. Isn’t that remarkable?

The answer is that there is no answer. We don’t know what happens after walking through that door. All we know is Eleanor, Chidi and Jason chose to do it, and Tahani chose not to, and the whole point is that they had that choice.

It’s truly incredible that a sitcom in the same episode can make a joke about “The Tempest 2: Here We Blow Again” and teach us a very important lesson about the purpose of life. That said, one strength of the show is that instead of lecturing its audience on ethics, it explores complex moral conundrums and allows us to make up our own minds about them. It gives us one interpretation of the meaning of life instead of a definitive answer. Eleanor’s takeaway from the conversation mentioned earlier with Janet is an honest acceptance of the not-knowing: “I guess all I can do is embrace the pandemonium, find happiness in the unique insanity of being here, now.” 

The very last scene of the show depicts Eleanor’s little glint of light landing on a random neighbor, inspiring him to bring Michael his misplaced mail instead of throwing it away. This simple act of kindness gives us a final message of hope: that in all of us lies at least a small spark of goodness, and that if we try our best to fan that spark into a flame, we’ve done our part for the universe.

[1] There’s a great article on Why The Good Place Had Chidi Meet Lisa Kudrow’s Hypatia of Alexandria Instead of Aristotle

— If you’re interested in knowing more about behind-the-scenes anecdotes and insights into episodes, check out The Good Place Podcast!



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