The Good Place: When Heaven Feels Like Hell

Note: In this post I look at NBC The Good Place Season 1 (available on the NBC website as well as on Netflix). There are some spoilers towards the end.

The question of what happens to us after we die is as old as humanity itself. From the oldest known temple structure, Göbekli Tepe, a burial site in modern day Turkey built around the 10th millennium BCE, to the pyramids in Egypt (some built around 2500 BCE), to the oldest burial sites of the Shang dynasty in China (all the way back to 1600 BCE), humans have tried to imagine what happens to us in the afterlife and constructed structures to reflect those views. Those structures reflect the unique worldview of each of those cultures: a hunter-gatherer worldview in the case of Gobekli Tepe, an agricultural society centered around the Pharaoh in Egypt, and an idea that humans transition after we die to become gods, ghosts, or ancestors in the case of China. NBC’s sitcom The Good Place takes our well-documented human obsession with the afterlife, and reimagines it in ways that are funny (sometimes downright silly) and intelligent while, also,  reflecting important aspects of our modern society (particularly in America).

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Basically, there is a “good place” and a “bad place”…

The series explores the afterlife of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) in “The Good Place” a newly created (and experimental) version of Heaven designed by Michael (Ted Danson), an angel/architect of sorts. If, as I have pointed out before, depictions of the afterlife reflect the cultures in which they were created, this is no exception. The Good Place looks like a Disneyfied version of suburban America, where everyone is happy living with their soulmates, you can have anything you want at any time, and where there are frozen yogurt stores in every corner. Heaven looks like an outdoor mall, a sanitized version of capitalist, consumerist America in which everything is clean, perfect, and free. In the first episode there is a funny explanation by Michael of how people get into the Good Place, which largely reflects a Buddhist notion of Karma in what it is, otherwise, a pretty general Judeo-Christian worldview reflected by the show. All of our actions have positive or negative consequences, and at the end of our lives the total outcome of our actions is measured according to a system of points. It turns out that “hugging a sad friend” gives you +4.98 points, but “rooting for the Yankees” subtracts -108.96 points. Those with enough positive points go to the “good place,” while those with a large number of negative points, go to the “bad place.” The list is quite funny:

Learning to be Good

As we will soon find out, though, Eleanor is in the Good Place by mistake, since she was actually a terrible person on Earth. As she points out though, she was not a mass murderer, just not a very nice person. Here is where his soulmate, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor, steps in and tries to teach her what it means to be “good.”

The exchanges between Eleanor and Chidi are some of my favorite parts of the show, especially since it is quite rare to see on TV jokes (and funny ones) about Kant’s moral imperative, or Aristotle Nicomanean ethics. This is where you see that the show is not only trying to be funny, but it is clever about it. This is where the show also reflects some of the main problems of our society: rampant capitalism that corrupts the soul of its participants (Eleanor selling sketchy pharmaceuticals to old people), our obsession with fame and celebrity, as reflected in Tahani’s (Jameela Jamil) constant anecdotes of her meetings with famous people during her charity work, and the downright stupidity of some people as seen in Jianyu (Manny Jacinto) a neither very smart nor very good DJ from Jacksonville (as someone who recently moved to Florida, the jokes about my newly adopted state are particularly hilarious).

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The show is also quite poignant in an era in which societal ethics standards seem to be under siege. We live in the era of “fake news,” and people seem to have given up on an agreed upon standard of what news are. Politicians have not always been a reliable measuring stick for the truth, but now we have a president who lies systematically either because it is expedient, or because he does not know the difference between a lie and the truth. The recent demise of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has also uncovered not only his particularly atrocious behavior towards women, but also a systematic abuse and denigration of women in our society (such as FOX News culture of sexual harassment). So how are we to act in a world in which there seems to be no ethical or moral standards? We live, after all, in a world in which our own president insulted his way to the White house (this included women, other politicians, minorities, POWs, and people with disabilities to cite a few), not to mention that he famously boasted about sexually assaulting women (as seen in the infamous Access Hollywood tape).  Why should we be good if being bad has no consequences? And what does it mean to be good anyway? These are important questions that the show addresses with intelligence and humor.

As Sartre said, “Hell is Other People.”

One of the most remarkable things about the show is that it packs, at the end of the first season, a remarkable twist… things are not what they seem to be in the Good Place which, in fact, it is revealed to be at the end of the first season, a new version of the Bad Place (Hell) which makes Michael not an angel but a devil. The Good Place is a new and more sophisticated torture chamber in which instead of being traditionally punished through all sorts of pain, now people are being tortured by the banal and suburban annoyance of living with people they do not like. As Sartre would put it, “Hell is other people!”. In this way, I also think the show reflects a certain aspect of modern society in America, in which Hell is not extreme pain and suffering, but not having WIFI.

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Sartre: “Hell is Other People.” (Image from Etsy)

In the final episode of the first season, we actually find out that it was not only Eleanor and Jianyu who do not deserve to be in the Good Place, but also Chidi and Tahani. Chidi’s inability to act (he was always measuring the ethical consequences of all of his actions!) caused so much pain to everyone around him that he also deserved to be there, and Tahani did good deeds, but always with the wrong intentions (impressing her parents and trying to outdo her sister). Jianyu was just an idiot who did not know the difference between good and bad. What makes this twist interesting is that the show seems to argue that our daily, meaningless, suburban lives are already a form of hell. That our preoccupation with frozen yogurt, fancy new restaurants (the show has lots of funny jokes about restaurants), superficial charity work (where it is more important to be seen doing good work than actually doing it), it’s all a form of self-imposed social hell.

The Good Place probably will not become a long lasting example of our human understanding of the after-life, as in the case of Gobekli Type, or the Pyramids of Egypt (although, as they would say in the show, who the fork knows!), but I definitely recommend it as an intelligent and funny mirror to our contemporary moral and ethical dilemmas, as well as a reflection on some of our hopes and fears for the after-life.

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