The Good Place offers food for thought despite bad theology
Kristen Bell throws paradise out of whack in ‘heavenly’ new NBC comedy
If you don’t believe in Jesus but do believe in heaven and hell, NBC’s The Good Place offers a logical afterlife scenario.
In the context of the show, a person’s fate after death is determined by the sum total of his or her actions on earth: Good choices are worth varying amounts of positive points, while bad ones detract. (In one of the show’s funnier moments, dozens of examples of actions and their point values flash onscreen.) A net positive score lands someone, regardless of religion, in The Good Place—the show’s conception of heaven.
Eleanor, played by Kristen Bell of Frozen fame, has arrived in The Good Place seemingly by mistake. We don’t know her final score, but we know her “life reel” (available for on-demand replay to each inhabitant of The Good Place) doesn’t match what she remembers doing on earth. Through a series of flashbacks, we also learn she didn’t seem to abide by any kind of moral code while alive.
Obvious theological problems aside, this premise is actually pretty intriguing—and scary. If eternal damnation or happiness really did depend on the sum total of our good acts outweighing the bad, it would be more than just a terrifying way to move through life. It also would be terrifying to exist in The Good Place, constantly fearing, as Eleanor and others do, that there’s been a terrible miscalculation.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be in paradise and feel like there’s something not quite right,” one character comments, summing up the show’s premise. (The Bad Place also exists, but all we know about it initially is that it involves a lot of screaming—and that most public figures, other than Abraham Lincoln, are there.)
The Good Place doesn’t create a storybook depiction of heaven. We don’t see clouds or angels, but Eleanor’s neighborhood has quite a few frozen yogurt shops. It also isn’t devoid of suffering, and the setting starts to “glitch” when Eleanor sins, taking on physical manifestations of her actions.
When Eleanor steals shrimp from a party, for example, giant shrimp start raining from the sky. Each time she speaks ill of her pompous neighbor, a plant the neighbor gave her shrivels. When she steals the neighbor’s diary in an effort to dig up dirt on her, the plant catches fire—looking oddly reminiscent of a burning bush. It all puts extra pressure on Eleanor to clean up her act and become an “ethical” person, creating the tension that makes the show interesting.
“Good people make me insecure,” Eleanor fumes. “When I’m around someone who I think is better than me, I try to drag them down to my level.”
The Good Place is a pretty intellectual comedy, and Eleanor isn’t a one-dimensional character. Her soulmate, Chidi (assigned to her when she gets to The Good Place), is an ethics professor. Together they banter about Aristotle, Plato, and Kant.
In flashbacks, we also see Eleanor call out her ex-boyfriend for boycotting a coffee shop because of an owner’s sexual harassment problems but attending a professional basketball game knowing several of the players had recently received DUIs.
The show does contain mild language, although not in The Good Place, since all swear words magically transform into other words (think fork and shirt). The sexual harassment scene is also uncomfortable, even though the inappropriate touching is implied and not shown.
Altogether, the first three episodes deliver a few raunchy moments and a lot to think about. Ted Danson plays a strong supporting role, rounding out the comedic ticket. Perhaps most promising for the show’s future: It was created by Michael Schur, who wrote for The Office and co-created Parks & Recreation.
Schur explained to Entertainment Weekly his idea for the show’s premise, which started with the realization people want credit for even small acts of benevolence, like putting 30 cents in a barista’s tip jar.
“You want to feel like you’re getting the points for your action,” he said. “You feel like if no one sees it, it feels like it didn’t happen. And the truth is whether you get credit for it or not shouldn’t be the point of a good action; you should just do it because it’s good.”
The Good Place airs on Thursday nights.
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