How should we live? Does it ultimately matter? And what happens after we die?
These questions animate Michael Schur’s new NBC comedy “The Good Place,” which stars Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop, a habitually selfish woman who dies and – in a case of mistaken identity – gets a spot in heavenly village of people who lived exemplary lives. In this “good place,” houses are custom-made for the inhabitants, the frozen yogurt flows endlessly, and denizens are promised good feelings and nice interactions for all eternity. There is a “bad place” too, and although no one ever really talks about it, Eleanor gets to hear what it sounds like at one point – and judging by the horrific screams, it’s not quite so nice. Naturally, Eleanor spends her time trying to find a way to stick around.
What’s good about “The Good Place” – especially given our cultural myopia about what hard sciences like physics and chemistry can explain – is its respectful engagement with philosophy. This results from Eleanor’s being placed in a house with Chidi, her Senegalese soul mate, who spent his life studying and teaching ethics. When Eleanor finally divulges her secret to Chidi, he deigns to teach the incorrigible egotist, throwing books by Heidegger and others at her. Aristotle’s virtue ethics – and Chidi’s hope that he can cultivate in Eleanor’s character the habit of the good before it’s too late – becomes the focal point of their relationship. The two also go on to discuss Kant’s The Metaphysics of Morals and Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature.
If only Schur brought the same seriousness to the show when it comes to God and faith. Paradiso, this is not.
In the plus column, this Gondry-like depiction of the afterlife is entertaining and even exciting. It feels like anything is possible from day to day and even moment to moment. (A lot of the excitement, however, stems from Eleanor’s presence in the good place, and the inability of the neighborhood demigod Michael, played by Ted Danson, to figure that out.) It’s also refreshing to watch a show situated entirely in the afterlife, which will inevitably turn viewers’ minds to the metaphysical possibility of eternity.
But that eternity still feels dull. Of course, there’s only so much you can do without deviating from a format fit for prime time comedy. Still, days pass like days do in life (there is no “outside” of time like there is “outside” of space), those days are awash in material stuff and diversions like they were in life, and that stuff and those diversions leave people insatiable and frustrated like they did in life. What’s so good about that?
This dullness is symptomatic of a deeper issue: Schur has very intentionally erased all notions of God and faith from the equation. “It is very important to make clear in the first 30 seconds of the pilot, this is not one religion’s concept of the afterlife,” Schur told The Hollywood Reporter. “…It’s about versions of ethical behavior, not religious salvation.” All that matters in “The Good Place” is how “nice” you were – the vague, new age hangover of the Kantian reduction of God and faith to moral action.
Interestingly enough, you have to be one of the nicest ones with one of the highest life scores to go to this good place; you don’t get in just by being born or being yourself. (Eleanor protests at one point that she wasn’t “Gandhi,” but was “okay.” “I was a medium person,” she argues. “I should get to spend eternity in a medium place. Like Cincinnati.”) But the good place has nothing to do with God, grace, or faith – concepts that could’ve easily been incorporated without favoring any one religion’s ideas.
All in all, though, you could do worse than a droll adventure about what it means to live a good life, and the very real possibility that everything we do here matters, and matters big time – forever.