THE GOOD PLACE: What does it mean to be good?

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This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Exploring Entertainment through a Gospel Lens
SPOILER ALERT: This analysis includes mild Episode 1 and early season spoilers.

THE GOOD PLACE is a fun take on the afterlife that uses at-times-too-adult humor to explore profound questions about what it means to be a good person, and how bad people can become good people.

Basic plot summary

The show introduces us to our main protagonist, Eleanor, who wakes up in the “good place,” having died from a gruesome string of events set off by runaway shopping carts in a parking lot. She’s given the grand tour by an angelic caretaker named Michael, and finds herself in a lovely, idyllic community full of the world’s greatest philanthropists and moral exemplars. She is shown replays and highlights of her own life serving orphan children and working as a human rights lawyer.

She is told that everyone in the Good Place is provided a soulmate, someone especially and uniquely compatible with their personalities and interests. She is introduced to her own soulmate, an ethics professor named Chidi, who seems to be a affable, scholarly young man who shares all the same interests as Eleanor. Everything seems perfect.

That is, until Eleanor confides in Chidi that she seems to be the victim of mistaken identity. None of the memories that were replayed for her are hers. She’s not a human rights lawyer. She is, in fact, a telephone scammer, and in nearly every other way a rather unadmirable person. By her own estimation, and by nearly every objective measure she knows, she does not belong in the Good Place.

Our friendly neighborhood ethics professor is now faced with an ethical quandary more thorny than most of those he tackled as a professor. He has promised not to betray Eleanor’s confidence. But has he, by doing so, made himself unworthy of his eternal reward? And his soulmate is asking him to teach her to be a good person — does he not have a duty to try? And what of the real Eleanor, who may currently be in the Bad Place?

All sorts of comedic shenanigans follow as Chidi and Eleanor work to keep her true, narcissist tendencies unnoticed by others. But everything is going wrong. Even their physical environment starts to unravel, which Michael blames on a “mistake” of some sort, that he begins hunting for so that he can correct. Watching Chidi’s anxieties mount, and the idyllic community around her start to fall apart, Eleanor’s own insecurities start to surface as she begins to recognize the way her moral failings truly do hurt those around her.

The show abounds with fun philosophy moments that make it a pleasure to watch for philosophical academics who are not used to seeing Kant’s categorical imperative discussed seriously in a television comedy. And hefty questions are asked, such as, What makes a person good? What does it mean to be good? The show provides some hints (but raises more questions than it answers): Turns out that community, norms, and mutual commitment work a lot better than whiteboard learning, when it comes to becoming a decent human being. And turns out that being a good person involves being willing to give our all for people we don’t always get along with.

What it gets right: Moral responsiveness

There’s moments in the show that I found profound. Eleanor studies with Chidi various ethical theories and worldviews from Aristotle to Kant and beyond. After episodes of white-board learning, where she discovers herself becoming a better person in ways that has nothing to do with these lessons.

After all, studying the difference between utilitarian and deontological ethics does not actual change one’s priorities and character. Rather, we become good people by being responsive to our inner moral sense of how we ought to treat those around us. We all have this moral sense — it’s the instinct to hold the elevator door open for a stranger, to take out the trash for a spouse, to take notes for a missing classmate. We are daily recipients of dozens of subtle impressions of ways we can acknowledge and respond to the humanity of the Other(s) in our lives.

Eleanor discovers this one day when in line at the frozen yoghurt store. While deciding which of the thousands of available flavors she wants, she casually and without thinking about it invites the person behind her to order ahead of her while she decides. At this moment, she realizes that her old self would have asserted her place in line despite her indecision, and without regards to the time of those around her.

It’s these moments that define our character. What we do in those moments isn’t right because we have rationally analyzed an action according to various philosophical rubrics. It’s because we are responding to the innate moral sense that lies at the center of every human soul, and a learned receptiveness to those around us. That’s why you don’t need to be educated to be good. You merely need to be attuned and responsive to this moral sense. In many ways, Kant’s categorical imperative (and other philosophical metrics) are merely a distraction, a post hoc rationalization of what is fundamentally a pre-rational fountain of moral wisdom.

I’m not convinced the show writers got this right on purpose. Or that they understand that whiteboard learning isn’t the key to living morally. But despite this, they still get it right more often than they get it wrong, and the show therefore feels smart and subtle in ways that are refreshing in this age of dumbed down television.

What it misses: Morality beyond being nice

Further, as a critical, LDS consumer of media, I have to notice  and acknowledge that the morality of the show does not so much as even hint at any form of sexual morality outside of consent. In the moral universe of the Good Place, consent is all you ever need. In this way and others, the morality of the Good Place is wholly consistent with modern progressive secularism and its core worldview of expressive individualism, where “morality” is comprehensively encompassed by the Golden Rule and the Golden Rule alone. And if there is a God in this universe, he is the God described by Moral Therapeutic Deism, where the only thing that truly matters is the attention we paid to the feelings of others.

That’s not to say that the show does not make forays and hints at some deeper forms of morality, such as self-sacrificial love and friendship. Nor is this to say that the show actively advances these progressive views. Rather, it just seems content to play around within those boundaries, and so it never steps into any territory familiar to Abrahamic theism that isn’t also shared to some extent by progressive secularism. I guess I can’t expect much more than that for a flagship comedy show on NBC.

Adult content warning

A warning, however, before you sit down and watch this show for family time. Some episodes have rather explicit discussions of sexual content, and most episodes have heavy profanity — but it’s “Mormon” profanity, of a sort. Turns out that you can’t use the f-word in the Good Place any more than you can use it on broadcast television. And so our characters say things like “fork” and “shirt” and “mother-forking shirt-hole” often enough that I wouldn’t want our children watching it . And the Season 2 episode with the “trolley problems” had more blood that I was expecting for the show.

If you are the type that enjoys shows like The Big Bang Theory, then the content of The Good Place won’t make you uncomfortable. But if you are ill-at-ease with the sexually-inflected humor of The Big Bang Theory, you will likely have a similar experience with The Good Place. If that’s you, good for you. Wish there were more people like you.

Season spoilers (for those who don’t watch it)

For those who don’t expect to ever watch the show, here’s a run down of the story (as it unfolds in Season 1) — but don’t read beyond here if you expect to actually watch the show. Knowing these twists may spoil your viewing of the first season.

In addition to Chidi and Eleanor, we also meet a gregarious socialite neighbor named Tahani who is troubled by her “soulmate” who is a buddhist monk who refuses to even speak. Eleanor soon finds out that this “buddhist Monk” is actually a low-intelligent DJ named Jason, who has also found himself in place he doesn’t belong. Upon his arrival in the Good Place, he was commended by Michael for his years of silence as a monk, and asked if he plans to continue that vow here. Bewildered by everything, Jason merely nods, and the charade begins. But he finds it difficult to square his new ascetic lifestyle with his hedonistic personality and habits.

The challenges of keeping these secrets escalate. Chidi begins to have panic attacks and nervous breakdowns with each new level of deception he is required to participate in. Jason finds himself unable to maintain his ascetic lifestyle. Tahani finds herself lonely with a soulmate who shares none of her aspirations and interests. And Eleanor watches as all of her new friends — and the entire community with them — begins to experience breakdowns that she blames entirely on herself.

And so to the shock of everyone, she turns herself in.

And for selfless reasons, no less — she willingly risks eternal damnation to ease the suffering of her friends and community. Which leads to a problem, of course, because now she may actually be worthy of the Good Place. But things aren’t that simple, since the curator of the Bad Place insists on keeping at least one of the Eleanors. Or if not an Eleanor, somebody. So multiple episodes of further shenanigans finally leads to a moment where our four friends are arguing amongst themselves about who gets to sacrifices themselves for the rest. And all of them are ready and willing to face eternal torment if it will save those they care about.

At which point Eleanor realizes the truth.

They aren’t in the Good Place after all. They never have been. The architect of the Good Place would never stand back and casually watch as four friends each volunteer to go to hell to save the others. They’ve been in the Bad Place all along.

Turns out that, instead of the typical chains and brimstone, Michael is trying out a new form of torment for our new denizens of hell: a psychological torture chamber that amplifies the worst insecurities of each of those involved. A hedonist forced to live the lifestyle of an ascetic. A socialite with a mute monk for a soulmate. A ethics professors facing intractable ethical dilemmas in what is supposed to be heaven. And a narcissist coming face to face with the pain caused by her own selfishness.

Except there’s a problem. They never expected Eleanor to confess. Based on their estimations of her life and character, they expected her to remain in tormented hiding forever. So something has backfired.

It turns out the four deceased protagonists of the show have found in each other friends and a community they’ve never had while on earth. They have built for themselves a family of sorts that they are willing to sacrifice their personal welfare to protect. And so together they have smoothed each other’s rough edges and actually become good. The devils in charge have never seen such a thing! And so naturally, it must be stopped. And so a whole new set of shenanigans begin in Season 2, in which our heros desperately try to maintain what they’ve learned while being tested and tormented in whole new ways by their devilish overseers.

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