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History of TV: Revisiting 'The Good Place'

May 6, 2021
3 min read time

NBC’s whimsical take on the afterlife is presented in philosophical technicolor. The Good Place offers up the realities of humanity — emotion, existential struggle, and most notably, the resounding ripple effects of our choices — in a brightly colored, lighthearted package that feels as surreal and overwhelming as it does offhandedly comedic and escapist. The enduring message? That of hope.

In the beginning

“Just one question. Who are you, where am I, and what’s going on?”

The pilot makes quick work of these questions to introduce Eleanor Shellstrop (the always-entertaining and unexpected Kristen Bell) to her new reality, while simultaneously grounding the viewer in this quirky new world. Every inch of Eleanor’s new home has been perfectly calibrated by Michael (Ted Danson), complete with a population “perfectly selected to blend together in a blissful harmonic balance.” A possible utopia — as we do, in fact, live in a pretty beautiful tapestry of cultures — if only people made the choice to act for the greater good rather than egocentrism. This good place sounds too good to be true. 

And it is. Turns out, Eleanor isn’t one of the “good people.” Neither are her insta-soulmate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), or neighboring couple Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). Their personalities feel like parodies of character archetypes, though only at first as the characters evolve, thanks to each other. But for pilot purposes, it is the direct opposition of Chidi’s morality — in a cheeky little nod to Eleanor’s despicable career, he was a professor of ethics and moral philosophy in life — and Eleanor's decidedly lack thereof that puts them together as the quintessential “opposites attract.” When faced with having to come clean about not belonging in this perceived heaven, Eleanor asks Chidi to help her become “good,” thus setting up the series with a clear dilemma and goal that we can’t wait to watch because these two are just so forking good at playing off each other.

The end

Perhaps that was the entire point of The Good Place; how humanity interacts. In the show’s case, that comes with a very hopeful helping of the notion that we can all turn out okay, if we only try. And that the idea of an ending is the only thing that gives the rest of all this any meaning. Yes, the show was heavy on philosophy underneath all those wacky demons and fantastical constructs. Philosophies contributed to the plot in large thanks to the show’s two philosophical advisors, Todd May and Pamela Hieronymi. In the end, there was something utterly simple at the core of The Good Place: the idea that nothing lasts forever.

Except for this show, which neatly put a button on every single character’s existence, ahem, storyline. It capped off a four-season run of network goodness in which the characters more than made good on season one’s goal of moral development to earn a spot in The Good Place.

Everything in between

The Good Place explores religious and spiritual concepts, as well as ethics and morals through debates, musings, and plenty of deadpan humor. It meant well in its examination, continually assuring the audience that people can do better because we have the ability to make each other better. No action is without consequence, it often humorously showed us (flying giant shrimp, anyone?) and in Eleanor we find a heroine that’s empathetic to humanity’s search for redemption while still being, unfortunately, ourselves. As Michael so aptly puts it: You humans take something wonderful and ruin it just a little bit so you can have more.”

Spoiler alert: In the season one finale twist — which only Danson and Bell were aware was coming — we learn The Good Place is actually The Bad Place. We then see the show’s inspiration from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (in which “Hell is other people”) fully realized; it crystalizes the dynamics between Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason as being at Michael’s whim and purposefully selected to balance each other, just not in the way we initially thought. Turns out good is bad, and bad can become good. Even the omniscient Janet (D’Arcy Carden), an AI-type guide to The Good Place, is eventually humanized. And life is just one giant points system; like a video game, or a really good credit card program. Who’s a million miler here? You get to go to The Good Place! Sounds about relatable for the current cultural temperature. Though I do appreciate any place that counts using “Facebook” as an adverb as a strike against you as good in my books — all the puns intended.

In retrospect:

“My soul is in your hands, soulmate,” Eleanor urgently pleads with Chidi to help her in the pilot. The line that sets the 14-time Emmy® nominee and two-time Golden Globe® nominee (including for overall comedy, writing, and lead actor and actress) from SNL alum Michael Schur (The Office, Parks and Recreation) in motion. Simple, catchy and just the hook for this quirky comedy to find its way into audience hearts. “Ohhh, stomachach …”

Revisit The Good Place on Netflix.

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