The Great Relief of The Good Place

Like Eleanor Shellstrop on The Good Place, I am a medium person. I’ve made someone dinner, but I’ve also eaten the last piece of cake without asking if anyone wanted more. I volunteered at an animal shelter, but I’ve also pretended not to see the cat vomit on the floor so I don’t have to clean it up. Eleanor, played equally caustic and sweet by Kristen Bell, continued to buy coffee from a shop whose manager is a sexual harasser. Her job was selling fake vitamins to the elderly as part of a scam. She was selfish, she lied, and she refused to be the designated driver for her office happy hours. She is also someone who has gotten complacent and taken advantage of her privilege without considering she has it. I’ve done this, too. (2017 reminded me every day I have done that.)

Before 2017, to me, a financially stable thin straight white woman, the world felt like it was on the up and up. It was believable to me that the U.S. was heading toward not quite paradise, but some place better than where it was before. My president was black, my nominee female. I believed the lies around me telling me the world was good.

But if I was honest with myself and if I paid attention to the small things that weren’t quite right, I would have realized that perfect world was false. Like Eleanor, I should have realized it sooner, and it was so obvious once I saw it, I could never go back. In this way, The Good Place became the perfect mirror of 2017 while providing the perfect relief from it.

The gist of The Good Place is this: Eleanor Shellstrop dies and meets a person in charge of the afterlife who tells her there is a Good Place and a Bad Place, and she has made it to the Good. But as Eleanor goes about her welcome tour, she realizes she’s been mixed up with another, better Eleanor Shellstrop. They have the same name but different lives. Good Eleanor was good, and this Eleanor was medium at best. In the Good Place, everyone is paired with a soul mate, and Eleanor is matched with the anxious but ethical Chidi (William Jackson Harper). She’s neighbors with the beautiful Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and her soul mate, a monk named Jianyu (Manny Jacinto). (Jianyu is actually another mix-up. His real name is Jason, and he’s from Florida, which is an automatic disqualification from the Good Place.) As Eleanor deals with increasingly complicated and disastrous situations to keep her (and Jason’s) secret from being discovered, she realizes that a place where you lie, cheat, and hurt people is hardly a good place at all: It’s actually hell. Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason are all in the Bad Place. Their tortured interactions with each other were actual torture. When she figures this out, Michael (Ted Danson), the demon architect of this afterlife experiment, erases their memory and sets up the fake Good Place to try to torture them again.

It’s a perfect twist. Once Eleanor discovers the truth, it feels so obvious. In the very first episode, Eleanor makes an offhand comment that bringing terrible people together would be torture. She was talking about her family, but the idea that people can torture each other is laid out in the pilot. There are other clues they are in the Bad Place—the abundance of frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, the pictures of clowns in Eleanor’s house, and the fact that no TVs get NFL RedZone. The truth was there the whole time, just like every horrible thing 2017 has brought into the mainstream. Eleanor’s discovery mirrors my own. Ignoring those seemingly small wrongs was to ignore what the world actually was, like a too-tight new shoe you tell yourself isn’t a big deal. Ten miles later, it hurts like hell. 2017 is that gaping, open blister.

This year watching and reading anything became difficult for me. I was diagnosed with anxiety for the first time, though I’ve experienced those symptoms before without knowing what they were. (2017 was a year of digging up unpleasant truths that have always been there and naming them. My president is a sexual predator, my government corrupt.) I stopped reading books I loved because even loving them felt like it took too much emotional energy. I wanted something easier, something less emotionally taxing. The Good Place filled that gap. It’s funny. It’s so forking funny I could shirt myself. Every week I looked forward to a new episode, and as soon as it was over I mourned for the week ahead without one. It was a gentle respite from the actual hell that was playing out on the news.

You can’t swear in the Good Place, not even the fake Good Place where Eleanor lives. Bell’s line reading of “Holy motherforking shirtballs” when she figures out the truth is something that would play over and over again in my actual Good Place. The way these nonsense words roll off her tongue make it seem believable that she’s actually swearing. Michael’s evil giggle when Eleanor figures out his trick should be exhibit No. 1 in the evil villain’s handbook. The cheerful yet deadpan Janet (D’Arcy Carden)—a kind of digital assistant, a physical form of Amazon’s Alexa—pairs good humor with sharp truth telling as she states the obvious to those who ask her for help. In one scene, Eleanor claims she’s not that selfish of a person as Janet smiles and delivers the cocaine and getaway train Eleanor asked for. The Good Place tells the truth while laughing at it, which is generally the easiest way to get people to listen.

The Good Place’s throwaway lines are funnier than most of what’s on TV because they bring to light small, ridiculous injustices of a privileged life. When Michael is redesigning the experiment to try to torture his subjects yet again, he makes all the coffee from “those little pods.” In one version of his Good Place, there are fountains of clam chowder. In another, the unlimited pizza available to its residents is Hawaiian. His carefully crafted torture machine is death by a thousand tickles.

The great gift of The Good Place isn’t just the jokes or the relief from seeing someone else realize their world is also permanently forked. It’s also excellent, surprising storytelling. The end of Season One provided the best twist of the year. And then Season Two took that twist and made it into a delicious treat—a cinnamon sugar pretzel of TV plots. When Season Two started, I had prepared myself for an entire season of the show repeating some of the tricks of Season One, a slow burn where Eleanor once again got to know her fellow tortured humans and realized they were in hell. Instead, the show had her find Chidi in the first episode of the season. By the end of that episode, she figured out the truth once more. Instead of building to a season finale where Michael realized they knew the truth and erased their memories again, he reset their memories over and over immediately. In a terrific montage full of clever jokes and puns that rewards the viewer the more times they watch it, Michael resets his version of the Good Place over 800 times in just the second episode of the season. Instead of taking an entire season for round two, it takes part of one episode to get to round 802.  (That montage feels like watching one day of news in 2017 unfold in real time.)

By the end of episode two, one of Michael’s henchmen tries to blackmail him, saying she’ll tell Michael’s boss, who thinks he’s still on try no. 2, that he’s actually failed hundreds of times. To keep him from being forced into retirement (where the atoms that make up his being would be divided and then placed on separate suns), Michael offers to team up with Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason. He promises he won’t erase their memory anymore if they help him pretend this last effort of torture is working. In return, he will try to help them all get into the real Good Place. The humans accept his offer—what else can they do—but on one condition: Michael takes the same ethics classes they have all been taking with Chidi, who was an ethics professor when he was alive.

With this deft slight of hand, The Good Place morphed from a show about tricking people in increasingly clever ways into a show about what it means to be good. (I hope America will follow that same pattern.) Eleanor and the others hope that learning to be good will help them get into the real Good Place. Under Chidi’s guidance, they study different philosophers and hypothetical ethics problems to try to make themselves into people who actually deserve to go to heaven.

This belief that I can make myself into a good person gave me hope in the hellscape of 2017. Eleanor and I share the same story of another silly girl too self-involved to be an active citizen. Like Eleanor, I could use a roadmap to find my way out of selfish complacency. I could use the belief that I can get better, and that by doing so I can make the world better. On The Good Place, people found hope literally in hell. And I’m forking grateful they showed me how.

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