I wish I had had The Good Place when I was 16.
NBC’s Heaven-set comedy — currently on hiatus, but you can watch all eight episodes that have aired so far on Hulu — genuinely tries to wrestle with issues of grave importance to anyone who’s just waking up to philosophies and ideas that exist somewhere other than their own heads.
The show is about the impossibility of knowing what the "right" thing is, and about why it’s so hard to be selfless, and how systems that try to rigidly enforce "good behavior" often end up being far more evil than less structured ideologies.
When I was 16, I needed to hear all of that, to know that the world was bigger and more varied than my imagination, that I didn’t have all the right answers to every question and I never would.
And if those lessons had been able to trick my natural defenses and worm their way into my subconscious via some great laughs and a terrific Kristen Bell performance, well, 16-year-old me would have had a new favorite show.
But maybe, ultimately, I needed The Good Place more now, in 2016 rather than when I was 16. And not just because the lessons it has to teach (in its sneaky way) are still relevant today, or because in a tough year, it’s always good to laugh.
More than anything else, it’s because The Good Place is perhaps the best, most succinct statement of an idea that’s come up again and again in this year’s pop culture (and, hey, everywhere else as well): You are the only one who can take control of your own life.
Pop culture is filled with characters blaming anything but themselves for their problems
Everywhere you look in 2016, characters in movies and on TV are blaming something, anything other than themselves for whatever is wrong in their lives.
Whether that’s Elliot Alderson on Mr. Robot blaming faceless globalism for his sense of powerlessness, or BoJack Horseman looking for any scapegoat he can find instead of confronting the roots of his depression, or Chiron from Moonlight repressing his feelings for the person he wants to be with because of the prejudices surrounding him — 2016 has been rife with characters struggling to be themselves in the face of pressures big and small.
And I don’t want to downplay those pressures. The world throws an endless array of issues at all of us. Reaching for your truest, happiest self can sometimes mean running counter to everything you’ve been taught from an early age. And breaking free of the oppressive systems we all live in (some to a greater degree than others) is never, ever easy.
But the works listed above and many others that’ve debuted or aired this year also focus on what it means to accept that you bear at least part of the blame for your own unhappiness — and need to seize opportunities to build your own good feelings. Self-awareness of the things that hold you back is good, but that same self-awareness can make it far too easy to blame external issues for stuff that you still have control over. Or, as a character on BoJack Horseman put it: "You are everything that’s wrong with you."
The Good Place tackles this truth head-on by positing not just a planet but a cosmos where the system is literally rigged against almost everyone. After you die, your good acts are tallied against your bad acts, and only if your score is astronomically in favor of the former are you admitted to "the good place," where everything is peachy and there’s frozen yogurt on every corner.
Everybody else ends up in "the bad place," where the trains are just a little bit too hot, and every time that exact thought crosses your mind, they get one degree hotter. There is no "medium place."
When The Good Place begins, we learn that the recently deceased Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell) has found herself in the good place, thanks to cosmic coincidence. Eleanor is not a good person — but she had the dumb luck to die right around the same time as another, much better Eleanor Shellstrop, who was sorted to the Bad Place instead.
At first, this seems like a standard fish out of water setup: "Bad" Eleanor is going to move into the Good Place and wreak havoc with her selfish behavior. In time, everybody in the Good Place will learn from Eleanor’s take-no-prisoners attitude, and she will be softened just a bit by them. The Good Place will accommodate Eleanor, just as she will accommodate it, and all will be well.
And the show does contain some of that classic narrative. But The Good Place’s true motive turns out to be quite a bit more profound indeed.
In The Good Place, the afterlife is just another oppressive system
From the very first scene of The Good Place, you’re confronted with an idea that’s at once hilarious and slyly subversive: The universe is the grandest bureaucracy of them all, and God (or whatever you want to call him) occasionally makes mistakes — big enough mistakes that sometimes, they’re just too difficult to correct. Whenever it’s faced with such blunders, the bureaucracy does what it always does: It tries to incorporate the fly in the ointment as seamlessly as possible.
Now, the idea of the afterlife as the ultimate bureaucracy is not a new one — see the Albert Brooks film Defending Your Life for just one example out of many. But as it’s expressed on The Good Place, humor allows for a gradual exploration of the inherent monstrousness of classifying certain people as "good" and certain people as "bad."
Yes, Eleanor spent most of her life looking out for only herself, and most of the people who have rightfully ended up in the Good Place genuinely did great things with their lives. But as Eleanor points out, is she really evil? Or is she just sort of medium-bad? Sure, she’s mostly selfish and kind of petty. But isn’t that true for the vast majority of us?
Many have written about how The Good Place sets up a world where Eleanor gets to listen to various theories of ethics from Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the man who is supposed to be her soulmate. Again, you probably think you know what happens next: Chidi teaches Eleanor a little about being selfless; she helps him loosen up. Presumably, they fall in love somewhere along the line.
And, yes, The Good Place contains some elements of that narrative, too. You really can watch this show and learn a little something about various ethicists and their approaches to fundamental questions of the universe. Chidi and Eleanor do seem to be influencing each other. And so on.
But the deeper the show goes, the more Chidi realizes that the system of the Good Place, which finally benefits the "good people," casts a whole bunch of people who aren’t great but also aren’t actively evil into very funny but very real damnation. Chidi, then, slowly starts to realize — as do other Good Place residents — that the system he lives within is unjust, even as it benefits him.
I hope this is all starting to sound familiar.
There are no easy answers on The Good Place. Scratch that. There are no answers, period.
Yes, the Good Place/Bad Place system is fundamentally flawed and fails to take the complexities of being human into account. It oppresses a lot of people who don’t deserve it at all. It’s an elastic enough metaphor that you can easily sub it in for literally anything you’d like, from systemic racism and sexism to extreme income inequality.
But The Good Place never suggests that suddenly fixing the system will make Eleanor a less selfish person. It’s not as if overthrowing the Good Place hegemony (which is managed, I should mention here, by a delightful Ted Danson) will make people treat each other more fairly.
What makes the show so vital for 2016 is its argument that, yes, working to make the world a better place involves working to end oppressive systems — but it also involves taking responsibility for your own actions, your own complicity in the system.
Even more refreshingly, The Good Place doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. But where lots of TV shows will nod toward the difficult truth that there are no easy answers, The Good Place removes the word "easy" entirely. There are no answers. There are just questions, and the point of life — and afterlife — is to grapple endlessly with them.
Where Schur’s last show, Parks and Recreation, presented life on Earth as a never-ending attempt to make the world slightly better, even for people who despise your efforts, The Good Place takes the point of view of the despisers. What’s the point of having a better world if the people who made it are just going to condescend to you?
If that all sounds like the opposite of a funny TV show, I understand. But Bell and Danson are consistent delights, and a scene involving cacti that I dare not spoil is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on TV in ages. The brilliance of The Good Place is that it simultaneously works on the deeper, more philosophical levels I’ve outlined above but also works as a very funny sitcom you can veg out to.
That, ultimately, is why I most wish I’d been able to watch this show at 16, when I was very certain of the answers to everything and disdained those who believed otherwise. The Good Place understands that the construction of a better world isn’t going to happen without our collective participation. All of us have to contribute, and we’re all responsible to both each other and ourselves. Let’s get to work.