Everything will be fine.
Blue eyes open, on a calm picturesque couch in a quiet waiting room. The strapping Ted Danson opens the door and welcomes you in. “Welcome! Everything is fine.” This is how we begin in NBC’s recently concluded sitcom The Good Place, a show that after fifty-three heartfelt episodes, concluded early this year in January.
I have to admit, when I first heard of this show; I wasn’t all that drawn to it. The Good Place began in the same year as Stranger Things, Westworld, The People vs. OJ, and Atlanta. There was a lot to watch that year, and with streaming reaching new heights seemingly at all times, it was easy for me to turn my head to a network sitcom whose advertisements stressed the inherent sitcom-yness of it. Kristen Bell and Ted Danson can’t say fuck in heaven; hijinks ensue. Though as I think many of the people who’ve seen the show can testify to; The Good Place, if anything, is not what it appears.
To be fair, that’s how The Good Place starts. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) awakens in heaven, greeted by the charismatic Michael (Ted Danson). Michael introduces her to her eccentric neighbors, the philanthropic and exquisite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), stoic monk Jiyanhu (Manny Jacinto); and her soulmate, indecisive ethics and moral philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper). There’s only one problem; there’s been a mistake and Eleanor certainly does not belong in the Good Place.
This is, at its heart, the story of The Good Place. An unconventionally serialized sitcom, the show follows the exploits of Eleanor as she tries to hide her huge secret from Michael while trying to learn how to be a better person from the most qualified person to teach her – her fake soulmate Chidi. The show integrates Eleanor’s moral philosophy lessons into the core of the show, as Eleanor, Chidi and their friends are forced to grapple with moral dilemmas from “The Trolley Problem” to “Contractualism.” That’s all to say that at the heart of The Good Place is the resounding and practically unanswerable question of: what makes a person good?
If the show’s discussion of philosophy doesn’t sway you, I think it’s fair to point out that The Good Place had philosophical consultants for the entirety of its run. Michael Shur, creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine took his responsibility in depicting philosophical concepts accurately and responsibly, perhaps to an unnecessary degree. However, I think the show’s dedication to this premise has allowed for it to possess a degree of heart and authenticity that a traditional sitcom may lack. The Good Place wants you to ask yourself; what makes a person good? Again, The Good Place originated in 2016 when national, political and social divides were beginning to distinguish an amorphous set of morals and ethics that begged us to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions. Cancel culture, political divisiveness, a shaky and unstable presidential cabinet led by political leaders that a slew of people had and continue to have no faith in; this was the world where The Good Place pondered what made a person good, ethically and morally. A daunting task for sure; but I think The Good Place tackled it, and that’s because The Good Place is no ordinary sitcom.
The Good Place’s original dramatic question, “What is Eleanor going to do now that she’s in heaven and doesn’t belong?” is quickly resolved by the end of the second episode. Rather, the show is structured so that each dramatic situation introduced in each episode creates next week’s tumultuously chaotic situation. This allows for The Good Place to adopt serialized storytelling where conflicts are planted early within the series. The Good Place, itself, doesn’t change; the writers’ room of the show is tactfully aware of the rules created by Michael Shur in its pilot and only builds upon the afterlife world that exists on the outside of The Good Place. From its point system that dictates whether you go to the heavenly Good Place or the hellish Bad Place, to the diaspora of infinitely knowledgeable Janets (D’Arcy Carden), to the Time Knife, the world of The Good Place was endlessly unpredictable in all of its forms. This makes sense when you consider that Schur based his hit sitcom on the storytelling structure of Lost, another landmark deviation in modern television. Almost every episode ends with a cliffhanger and if not, it sets the characters up for next week’s adventure.
And marvelously, the cast of The Good Place is a ragtag group of lovably flawed people. Eleanor, who on another sitcom would be a frustratingly stoic selfish person, is only perfect in how much she changes every week. The writers struck an excellent balance of advancing her enough while still giving her challenges that test her ever-evolving moral code. As the show evolves, so does its attention to the other characters. Chidi is forced to make large decisions despite his anxiety-induced “stomachaches,” Tahani confronts the vapid nature of her perceived image, and even Michael is forced to evolve. Watching season four in comparison with the first season, requires looking at totally different, evolved and almost fully realized character arcs. It’s great to confidently say by the show’s finale, each character becomes fully developed.
So what does The Good Place suppose makes someone good? If anything, The Good Place is very keen on the thought that past ideas of morals have become outdated in our modern world with social, cultural, political and global conflicts on the minds of many (Also thankfully, The Good Place does not exist in a vacuum; as the characters constantly reference the troubles of the modern world). The Good Place acknowledges identity differences (“Also, apparently I’m black? And they really do not like black ladies down there,” a line delivered flawlessly by Maya Rudolph), unintended consequences (“There’s this chicken sandwich, that if you eat it, means you hate gay people. And it’s delicious!”), and political correctness (Asking a woman to “smile more,” warrants negative points). This is all to say that The Good Place knows how hard it is to be a consciously good person in a world that is rapidly and endlessly changing. Schur, and his cast of colorful characters, repeat “What do we owe to each other?”
Referenced in the show itself, What We Owe to Each Other, a book by modern philosopher T.M Scanlon, is the thesis of The Good Place. As Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jianyhu, Michael and Janet navigate a stagnant world with clear rules and boundaries (in other words, a totally different world from ours), they find ways to support each other and become better people. Telling Buzzfeed News, Schur himself said: “The idea that we owe certain things to other people, and the job of being alive on earth is to figure out what you owe to them and how you can provide it for them. That’s the only way that there will ever be any progress.”
Reflecting on Eleanor, a character who we quickly learn is selfish and ignorant Schur says: “Her problem was she lived by a creed and the creed was, ‘If I just go off by myself and I don’t form any close bonds with other people, then I don’t owe them anything and they don’t owe me anything and everybody wins. But the show has sort of said, ‘No, that’s not everybody winning. That’s everybody losing because you’re losing out on an important aspect of being alive on Earth, and you’re losing out on what you could contribute to a group of people, whether it’s a group of people that works together or lives together or whatever.’ Everybody loses when people are selfish.”
This isn’t exclusively Elanor’s conflict either, as the entire main cast of The Good Place grapples with how their actions affect others; from Chidi’s rigid indecisiveness, to Tahani’s motivated narcissism, even Janet’s stoic unwavering intelligence, The Good Place positions its characters to be better people to each other, in which they find answers in considering others.
“To me, so many fundamental problems in America and in so many other Western countries, and I’m sure plenty of Eastern countries, is that people who are in the middle of a society are only thinking about, ‘How can I win? How can I be better? How can I defeat other people or rise above other people?’” he said. “And they have a fundamental belief that what life on Earth is about is competition and if someone else is winning, that means they lose.,” Schur said. While it may seem overly simplistic in a world with relentless challenges and consequences, Schur and his talented cast and crew, strive to prove how that simplicity and a willingness to change can go a long way.
With a delightfully light and positive tone, a penchant for clever and at times even satirical humor, and not taking itself too seriously The Good Place is a landmark network sitcom, when our antiquated idea of what a sitcom looks like is seeming to evolve into something new. The Good Place, with its atypical storytelling structure, philosophical musings, and cast of flawed however lovable characters, will leave an indelible mark on television.
While we’re all stuck inside, going from TV show to TV show, solemn distanced walks for breaths of fresh air and sifting through a bombardment of unsettling information on coronavirus and how it is and will affect every facet of our world, The Good Place settled its final chapter at just the right time. What do we owe to each other? Perhaps it’s just me, but this seems to be an excellent guiding principle for how we navigate a tumultuous world.
So with your downtime – between Zoom classes, online coursework and stressful trips to the grocery store – open your eyes, and take a trip to a sophisticated and enlightened world beyond. Hopefully, it brings some levity and even encourages some clarity in your own life. This will pass, everything will be fine. And for now, with all the love and knowledge in the universe take it sleazy.
Mateo Flores is a fourth-year Writing for Film, TV & Emerging Media major who scored negative afterlife points for muting video and audio during a Zoom class to continue sleeping in, and you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.