The (secular) gospel according to The Good Place

NBC

The best sitcom about moral philosophy is The Good Place on NBC.

Much has been written about how the show breaks new ground in getting its audience to think about the Big Issues of life and death. The show tells the story of selfish ne’er-do-well Eleanor (Kristen Bell) who finds herself accidentally placed in what she thinks is heaven after her untimely death and is forced to masquerade as a good person with the help of neurotic moral philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper).

Eventually Eleanor, Chidi, and their new friends — Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a self-obsessed philanthropist, and Jason (Manny Jacinto), a sweet but dumb bro from Florida who, similar to Eleanor, is masquerading as a monk — figure out that they’re actually in the Bad Place. At the end of the second season, the crew gets a second chance at gaining entry to the real Good Place when they’re literally sent back to earth to live again. That’s when affable demon Michael (Ted Danson) asks Eleanor the show’s central question: “What do we owe each other?” (It’s also where season three will begin.)

But what makes The Good Place so fascinating is that it manages to be a show about the afterlife that is, nevertheless, not about religion. It takes seriously the demands of moral and ethical philosophy; the show’s emotional heart lies not in Chidi and Eleanor’s budding romantic relationship, but in the notion that they can become better people. It also plays the metaphysical framework surrounding the characters — the existence of God or other deities, and the actual structure of the universe — for laughs.

It’s the disconnect between The Good Place’s serious approach to ethics and lighthearted approach to metaphysics that makes the show such a powerful and affecting watch in an era in which one in three millennials no longer affiliate with an organized religion. The Good Place is, at its core, about goodness, not God. It’s a show about heaven and hell, but it’s also incredibly, tellingly secular.

The Good Place plays theology for comedy

From the first scene of the pilot, we know that the show plans to mine the theological element of its premise for comedy. Eleanor wakes up after a fatal shopping cart accident in what looks like a dentist’s waiting room.

Michael — who initially poses as an architect of the Good Place — welcomes her and quickly dispenses with the idea that the show will contend with the existence of God, or Jesus, or any other deity.

Each religion, he tells her, got the structure of the universe “about 5 percent” right — although, he notes, a Canadian stoner named Doug Forcett got it “92 percent” right while high on mushrooms, before promptly forgetting what he’d learned. The line, like most of the dialogue surrounding the metaphysical nature of the Good Place, is played for laughs. But that line is central to the show’s conception of what kind of show it wants to be, and which big questions it wants to explore (and which it doesn’t).

Traditional questions of theology — Does God exist? Is God good? Why does a loving God allow evil in the world? — never come up in the Good Place. Basically, the process of determining one’s fate in the afterlife is presented something akin to playing a video game: When you die, all the points you’ve earned throughout your life for doing good deeds, and lost for doing bad ones, are tallied up. The score determines whether you end up in the Good Place, the Bad Place, or (for a very select few), the Medium Place.

But The Good Place’s characters rarely wrestle with the implications of this. None of the central quartet seems to have been particularly religious. Nobody is, say, deeply bothered to find out that a loving God does not seem to exist in the show’s world, or even deeply curious to know or worship whatever deity does control the Good Place.

According to showrunner Michael Schur, this is intentional. “I stopped doing research [on world religions] because I realized it’s about versions of ethical behavior, not religious salvation,” he told the Hollywood Reporter before the show premiered. “The show isn’t taking a side, the people who are [in the Good Place] are from every country and religion.”

The creators and administrators of the Good Place all exist either as plot architecture — pushing the characters on their voyage of self-discovery — or as comic relief, though sometimes they function as both. The “demon” Michael is not the horrific monster of Catholic tradition but a midlevel functionary who finds himself drawn to the charges he’s been tasked to torture. (Technically, the demons’ human forms are just costumes — we get a brief cheesy-CGI clip of one in his “monster” form — but this too is largely played for laughs.)

The closest thing we’ve seen to God, the Judge (Maya Rudolph) is a frazzled, burrito-gobbling bureaucrat whose days are dictated by her lunch breaks. In the season two finale, as the foursome pleads to her to allow them into the Good Place, the obstacles they face on their road to heaven are fundamentally funny, in part because they map onto viewers’ familiarity with and frustration with bureaucratic inefficiency.

The idea of eternal agonizing punishment is never treated psychologically realistically, which is to say, as something brutal and horrific and genuinely, soul-wrenchingly terrifying. (Whenever we do get glimpses of the Bad Place’s “torture,” the visuals are kept offscreen, with sounds that mimic a particularly schlocky theme park haunted house.) When torture is referenced, it’s often done so in a tongue-in-cheek way that signals to the audience that we’re not meant to find it actually scary. In fact, the existential horror of the Medium Place (boredom and a lack of cocaine) is treated with much more gravity than the possibility of eternal physical torment.

The Good Place takes ethics seriously

But the premise of the Good Place (the place) and the premise of The Good Place (the show) are both, ultimately, red herrings. Though the show takes place in the afterlife, that’s not what it’s really about. (Indeed, you could argue that it is only to able to work as a comedy because it trusts that its audience is comfortable with a comedic, lighthearted portrayal of hell.)

Rather, it’s about human beings living in the here and now, trying to be better people, trying to navigate their obligations and relationships to one another. The show may not take, say, God or heaven that seriously, but it takes other big questions — what it means to be a good person — more seriously than any other show on network television.

That a character’s moral evolution could become the single most important plot point on a successful television show tells us a lot about why The Good Place works. It works because it recognizes that its audience appreciates stories that deal seriously with the question of what it means to be a good person. But it works, too, because it explores that problem within a specifically secular framework. (After all, in the world of the show, even language is secularized, with the “Good Place” and “Bad Place” standing in for more theologically loaded terminology.)

Religion may be the source of The Good Place’s humor. But ethics is the source of its soul.

During one of Chidi and Eleanor’s many arguments about the nature of goodness, he explains that just performing good deeds to get into the Good Place doesn’t “count.” You have to act morally, or not, for its own sake, rather than out of a desire to attain a reward.

In the Good Place, the “reward” — our characters’ ultimate salvation — is just a MacGuffin, designed to keep us invested in their journey. The show cares about what we do on earth, not what’s stored up in heaven.

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