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Betraying the Good Place

Rachel M. Coleman

The Good Place. NBC, 2016-2020.

Most of our on-screen entertainment mines drama from forcing apart two characters we love and putting them through obstacles to get together for a final moment of catharsis that is never quite as dramatic as it should be. The obstacles were always kind of fake and we all knew the characters were going to come back together in the end anyway. But something I’ve always found interesting about the shows directed by Mike Schur is that the story never ends there. It’s not that Schur does not use this tactic (e.g, The Office), and of course human beings do have to overcome obstacles and misunderstandings to be in community with each other—we are humans after all. But Schur’s work often seems to point to the fact that the real fun and drama of life comes after we find people, and in how we deal with what we encounter and face with them rather than in the (melo)drama of superficial obstacles that are put in their way (the best example of this being Schur’s Parks and Recreation). Schur thinks people are more interesting together than apart, which is unfortunately a rare worldview to have currently, especially for one who is in television.

In addition to being a fan of Schur, I am also a philosopher, so I was more than on board when it was announced Schur was creating a show on the afterlife. By all normal “rules” of the world of television, a sitcom about the afterlife and moral philosophy should not have worked, but it did, not least because the writing is quick, clever, and smarter than most anything I’ve seen.

In the first episode, we find out that Eleanor Shellstrop doesn’t belong in the Good Place (no mention of “heaven” here) and has been placed there after her death through some sort of mix-up that has eluded the attention of the Good Place’s architect, Michael. Eleanor enlists the help of her Good Place-assigned soulmate, moral philosopher Chidi Anagonye, who understandably isn’t entirely sure he should be helping. This causes him a lot of literal stomachaches and frustration, but in the end he tries to help the very selfish Eleanor become a better person.

Later in the season, Eleanor and Chidi find out there is another interloper in the Good Place, a goofball Floridian named Jason Mendoza, but who Michael thinks is a Buddhist monk named Jianyu. Eleanor and Chidi decide to help Jason as well, but the task is made difficult by Jason’s general carelessness and by his soulmate, Tahani al-Jamil, a vainglorious snob who loves to gossip and make people feel less-than, and who got into the Good Place because of the millions of dollars she raised for charity. The first season initially follows this group in their attempts not to be found out and then, once they are, in trying to prevent Michael from sending Eleanor and Jason to the Bad Place, where they rightfully belong. Add to this quintet Janet, the AI-like being who knows all and keeps the Good Place running, and we have our main characters. The show somehow combines extreme silliness with profound reflections on the human experience, such as when one is left laughing to the point of tears at a rebooted Janet’s inability to discern a cactus from a file folder, but who then, in the next moment, reflects on how being neglected as a child can make one believe that all there is to life is looking out for number one.

And then, at the end of Season 1, everything changes. We find out—or rather, Eleanor figures out—that they’re not actually in the Good Place, but the Bad Place, and the entire thing is a No Exit­-style set up by Michael whose aim was to have the four humans torture each other forever (Janet was unaware of the plan). All of this was going pretty well until Eleanor’s extreme cynicism led her to uncover the scheme. Season 2 flips Sartre on his head: rather than the four of them torturing each other, we see the humans—along with Michael the demon and not-a-human Janet—help each other become better. For various reasons, the group is stuck together, but it is precisely because they must remain together that they become better people/beings. People are better together.

Season 3 sees the sextet—through outlandish though not illogical (within the show’s own rules) events—back on earth, trying to convince people to be better and helping others learn the lessons they have helped to teach each other: Why not be kind to each other? Why not help others? Why not put others before oneself? The show is founded on Kantian de-ontological ethics (including a major assist from T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other), which doesn’t ultimately hold up under rigorous philosophical scrutiny—that is to say, I don’t think Kant helps us answer the question of why we should treat others well. But it’s a sitcom explicitly posing questions about what it means to live a good life, and I consider that remarkable, to say the least.

At the end of season 3, we find out that the entire system of the afterlife is broken and that no human being has made it to the Good Place since 1497. At first, our group thinks the points system on which the afterlife is built has been hacked by demons in the Bad Place, but eventually they find out that the points system itself is the problem, as it doesn’t take context into account. If one gave one’s grandmother a dozen roses in 1534, one netted oneself 145 points, but if one takes the same action today one loses 4 points because of the exploitation of the workers picking the roses, the negative environmental impact of growing roses, the carbon it takes to transport them, etc., etc. Basically, there is no ethical consumption under late stage capitalism, or, perhaps more profoundly, we cannot escape structures of sin.

Season 4 then follows the group as they try to fix the afterlife, which they end up doing more or less by installing a kind of purgatory, in which people learn how to be good by being with and caring for each other, and when they pass the final test are finally allowed into the real Good Place. Our sextet of four humans, a reformed (redeemed?) demon, and not-a-girl Janet are the first beings allowed into the Good Place in over 500 years. And it’s here where the show starts to get really messy.

Upon entering the Good Place, the group finds it absolutely miserable: one’s smallest, most insignificant desires are met immediately and therefore no one has reason to do anything. Hypatia of Rome asks, “how are you supposed to want to learn anything when you can have a milkshake made of actual stardust anytime you want it?” Truly a question for the ages. Everyone in the Good Place is a “happiness zombie”: they have no drive to do anything. Our central group is appalled and decides that after fixing the rest of the afterlife, they need to fix the Good Place as well.

Stardust milkshakes aside, this actually is a question for the ages, and at its heart is the question of eros. Eros can be translated as desire, but we could also interpret it as the “moving love”: it pushes us to move toward what we want, to learn new things, to be better people. The question of what human nature would look like without eros is perennial, with many philosophers agreeing that without eros there is no human nature. And if heaven simply is all of our desires being answered immediately, then it would make sense that those who inhabit it are barely human. So I appreciate the show asking the question, as it’s one that should be asked when speculating about the afterlife: is heaven boring?.[1] But how The Good Place answers the question is one of the worst disappointments I’ve experienced in my TV-watching career.

Rather than ask the question about eros—maybe it changes or transforms significantly in the afterlife, maybe our desire is for something other than milkshakes or other material pleasures—The Good Place chooses to keep the question within the immanent (and frankly, capitalist) horizon by introducing one final twist to the afterlife to solve the “problem” of all our desires being answered for all eternity: a final, permanent death, or dissolution into non-being. When the team introduces this dissolution, they put time back into the equation for the inhabitants of the Good Place, which means now they have the desire to know and do things again. Don’t think too hard about it, because it doesn’t exactly hold up under scrutiny, but the basic logic is this: once you know something can end, you’ll enjoy it a lot more. That those in the Good Place can choose when to go through the “final door” (and that this decision might be never is not really addressed) is essentially to say that an end is what makes desires and movement possible. Philosophically, this is entirely accurate, but to address the question of eros profoundly we have to rethink what “end” could mean within a transcendent horizon.

Did I expect the show to do this? No. But where the show betrays its own principles most deeply is the way each of our main characters reaches his or her final end. Each of the humans decides to go through the final door separately (with the exception of Tahani, who becomes a purgatory architect) and therefore alone. The show sells it as each of the characters finally being at peace. Jason decides to go first, leaving everyone behind. Then Chidi decides it’s time, which is a gut-punch to say the least. As he tells Eleanor he’s ready, she starts to cry, saying, “I’m not ready to go . . . and if you leave, then I’m alone here. I was alone my whole life . . . I like being with you.” This seems a fair sentiment to have about someone you love. And it also seems reasonably devastating for one’s beloved not to want to continue to be with you as long as possible (even into eternity). But since Chidi is at peace, Eleanor acquiesces, and he goes through the door solo, leaving Eleanor alone in their bed. Michael decides he wants to be human and so is incarnated on earth, and while he’s there, Eleanor decides she is ready and walks through the door leaving Janet in the Good Place by herself, without her friends. After spending four seasons with our main characters and seeing the argument played out that being together and acting for others is what makes life worth living, our main characters end up either obliterated, alone, or both.

Looking back, it seems inevitable now that The Good Place would go the eastern philosophy route in order to answer the ultimate questions about the afterlife. The show didn’t want to go near questions of God or transcendence; it didn’t really want to push beyond the argument that we should be good to each other into why we should do so. And a superficial version of eastern mysticism, a “returning-to-the-energy-of-the-universe”, may seem like the easiest way out of the corner the show wrote itself into. But in its last 30 minutes, The Good Place betrays every principle it spent the previous four seasons arguing for. It tells us that ultimately we are alone, and that it’s only our own feelings that matter. We don’t owe anything to each other but are instead supposed to be good to others so that each of us can achieve some sort of individual peace. But as a viewer who had invested in the show, its characters, and its arguments, I didn’t feel peace as Eleanor’s essence dissolved back into the universe. All I felt was hollow.

[1] An excellent example of this question being addressed profoundly on a television show is The Twilight Zone episode, “A Nice Place to Visit” (aired 15 April 1960). There, a similar switcharoo occurs: the place which we viewers and the main character were led to believe was heaven turns out to be hell, except here, hell is the place in which every base desire is met immediately, and nothing more.

Rachel M. Coleman is the Edith Stein Fellow in Metaphysics at the Cultura Initiative in Washington, D.C.

Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
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