Kristen Bell and Ted Danson’s satirical comedy The Good Place portrays a middle-managed afterlife where inauthentic goodness makes for a kind of hell.By Helen Razer.
‘The Good Place’
If only the good are admitted to heaven, save us from their tedious eternal virtue and send us all to hell. This gag is not new. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote several one-liners on the theme of Christians and their boring souls. These were not, however, published on Earth until the man had himself been damned for decades. In Europe of the 19th century, this will to power material was edgy, probably quite funny and certainly confined to notebooks. These days, it’s common and benign. See it on Netflix, local home to American network comedy hit The Good Place.
To make the crack that all the interesting people fry is now about as edgy as Christopher Hitchens became in later life, or as funny as Sam Harris remains. It is not an especially edgy joke in this new comedy. It is funny, though. Perhaps because it is written down by Michael Schur, known for Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation, then delivered by the bartender from Cheers. Ted Danson is funny to a Ted Danson standard in this funny, lauded show.
Danson is Michael, a creature and functionary of the non-denominational heaven in which The Good Place is set. Throughout the first season, he and other celestial beings are wont to give human arrivals the very Nietzschean advice that they shouldn’t expect to meet anyone very interesting.
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) appears interesting from the outset. The circumstances of her recent death, of which she has no memory, are described to her in the show’s very first scene by heaven’s employee. Michael tells Eleanor that she dropped a product named Lonely Gal Margarita Mix for One in a supermarket car park. Then, when she stooped to retrieve the item, a train of runaway shopping trolleys sped her way. She managed to evade death in that moment, but in the next, collided with a billboard promoting a product for lonely men named “Engorge-ulate”. Eleanor is fatally impaled on an outdoor advertisement for assisted erections.
It’s an interesting death, and one, we immediately suspect, inappropriate to a person who belongs in the Good Place. Viewers soon learn that Eleanor’s admission to this afterlife – a shiny, four-star development with uneven finishes that suggest a troubled investor – is a bureaucratic snafu. She has taken the place of another, better Eleanor whose time on Earth was given to opposing the injustice of state-sanctioned death, advocating the lives of Crimean orphans et cetera, and who presumably has been sent to the afterlife’s south. This Eleanor is a self-seeking hottie whose years had been generally spent living as she died: thinking only of her own needs, preparing sticky cocktails and crashing into unsteady men. Naturally, this Eleanor doesn’t mind one bit that a courageous human rights warrior bears the torture for her sin.
Bell’s charm is such that any character she plays can get away not only with the murder of the good but with high-concept entertainment itself. A majority of “What if?” shows suffer creative death inside a season. Desperate Housewives was briefly great but was soon crushed by the weight of its premise. “What if a ghost narrated the reasons for her suicide?” quickly became a question no one cared about. When posed again in 2017’s teen drama 13 Reasons Why, a raging army of psychologists agreed it should never have been asked. “What if the wrong person ended up in heaven?” is no more a guarantee of a good and long retort. For two seasons, though, writers, actors and a colossally silly visual effects team have consistently amused with their answers.
The entire thing looks hilarious. This small quarter of heaven, designed and overseen by Danson’s bow-tied middle manager, brings us all the simulated daylight of The Truman Show and something of the seasickness felt when playing computer games. It would be a cinch to reproduce the vectors of those virtual worlds we inhabit when gaming, but it can have been no easy matter to refer on screen to the true, sometimes negative experience.
Games make some of us hostile if we play them too long – which we always do. First, we might become angry with a game when it quits delivering on its initial promise of perpetually new experience and image. Then, we might become angry with ourselves for getting trapped in the same old engine. From the start, this frustration is communicated visually in The Good Place: this afterlife was developed by a guy who doesn’t get out much. The sun is all wrong and the interiors and the landscapes have no initial point of reference – they’re not even drawn from a memory of the real, but its unfaithful, distant copy.
The Good Place makes the inauthentic life funny. It looks like a gated golfing community built by Donald Trump, and its menus read as though their authors never once had the option of ordering their own food. The neighbourhood’s restaurant district has a pizzeria that offers only Hawaiian and features a Willy Wonka-type fountain filled with clam chowder – in gags written by comedian Megan Amram, Eleanor describes this as “savoury latte with bugs in it” or “hot ocean milk with dead animal croutons”. There’s also a frozen yoghurt store – no ice-cream, just its low-cal facsimile. “There’s something so human about taking something and ruining it a little so you can have more of it,” says Michael. We are gluttons for imitation.
The conditions for entry to this Nietzschean paradise are strict. Eleanor, still high on her luck, asks her officious angel to tell her about those who have been rejected. “Uh, well, Mozart, Picasso, Elvis, basically every artist ever, uh, every US president except Lincoln.” Just like Friedrich says.
We learn that Walt Disney is with Satan, as is Florence Nightingale, William Shakespeare and anyone who ever removed their shoes and socks on a commercial flight. Christopher Columbus is with his evil master, due to “all the raping, slave trading and genocide”. Not one of the four humans new to this afterlife seems shaken by this news, but ethics professor Chidi Anagonye, played by newcomer William Jackson Harper, is momentarily disappointed to learn that he will never meet Immanuel Kant. Apparently, moral philosophers are generally given to damnation.
Most people, we find, end up in hell. We can be sure this population includes some, if not all, screen critics. But for those who enthusiastically take up The Good Place theme of moral philosophy, an eighth or ninth circle seat is reserved.
The claim that this show encourages its audience to appreciate moral philosophy has been published dozens of times. But, by the fantasy logic of the show itself, this claim is flawed. Chidi is forced to teach the lessons of his academic lifetime to Eleanor when she discloses her unethical secret to him. He finds no pleasure at all with John Rawls and co, and it soon becomes clear that moral philosophy, a faith that condemns most adherents to hell, never gave Chidi much but stomach trouble. He resents it, Eleanor is bored by it, the administrators of heaven and hell make jokes about it, and at no point have deontology, utilitarianism or even Sartrean dread been shown on screen to illuminate the darkness for mortals. Or even for their immortal guardians.
A strong sight gag about the Trolley Problem, a thought experiment known to every student of Western philosophy, is not also a strong endorsement of ethics. It is my current faith that The Good Place has no truck with the kind of thought it plays with as a prop. I propose the texts – Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Locke, Kant, Bentham – assigned by Chidi are disagreeable to Eleanor not because she, a reluctantly quick study, finds them difficult to understand; they are all disagreeable because they understand reality as something derived from its ideal, or divine, form. No person erroneously admitted to heaven could possibly buy this crap. Reality cannot be determined by the ideal if the ideal place can make filing errors and serve such awful soup.
The universal truths sought by philosophers are not ultimately those sought by The Good Place. Viewers and critics may be seeking some hard foundational truths – who isn’t, in a time of fake news, simulation games and crumbling institutions? – but these will not be provided by the very philosophers whose influence set the terms of our era, which feels to so many of us as though it’s approaching its limit.
This is a funny – at times, even feel-good – show. Some of its character arcs are conventionally heroic, yet others are unusually regressive. But across its two seasons, which include a reality reboot, The Good Place is yet to deliver a “teachable moment”.
If you’re looking for truth in this time of transition, don’t look for it in a comedy that is more satire of the present than it is high-concept. The premise is not really the candy floss of “What if the wrong person ended up in heaven?” It’s “What if all the people on Earth found themselves approaching hell?”
The divine ideal of the Good Place runs a lot like our profane material present. “Heaven is so racist,” says Jason (Manny Jacinto) when he, a Filipino DJ, is presumed to be a Taiwanese monk. Heaven is divided. Heaven is an ongoing quake that prefers to ignore its foundational cracks. Heaven provides the illusion of democracy, the appearance of wisdom and the abundance of nothing. Heaven is run, quite badly, by a middle manager with an insincere smile, a bow tie and thwarted ambition.
Heaven is far more interesting than Nietzsche had feared, far closer to the low and dirty Earth than Kant had ever dreamed.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2018 as "Stowaway to heaven".
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