NBC’s The Good Place centers around the concept of an afterlife with a Good Place and a Bad Place analogous to Heaven and Hell. Sure it’s just a network TV sitcom but I can’t help consider the theological underpinning of the show. Spoilers through the second season premiere ahead.
Let me state right up front that I’m not particularly religious. I would be considered an atheist as most people define the term. But I’m not militant about it and don’t have a problem with anyone peacefully practicing their faith and not trying to force me to adopt their views.
The show starts with a woman named Eleanor who has died and ended up in what she believes to be the Good Place. But she also realizes that she isn’t supposed to be in the Good Place. At the end of the first season Eleanor figures out that she and three others - Chidi, Tahani, and Jason - are actually in the Bad Place. Michael, the architect in charge, has actually devised the Good Place scenario in order to torture the four souls. Michael wipes their memories and resets the fake Good Place.
In the second season premiere Eleanor figures out things even sooner than the first time due to a note she hid for herself before the memory wipe. Michael wipes the four’s memories again and thinks the third time will be the charm.
I omitted a lot from that synopsis but these parts aren’t relevant to what I’m discussing.
Since we know anything Michael told Eleanor and the others is part of the scenario we don’t really know how much of that is true or accurate. Let’s assume that the algorithm that decides who goes to the Good Place and who doesn’t works as presented (as the show’s creator has stated). That means there is some sort of universal morality in place. It’s reasonable to think that being mean to others is bad and being nice to others is good. From the image above it is also much better to be a
Bengals Browns fan than a Yankees fan. (Yes, I know it’s a comedy and some of those items are jokes.) But quantifying everything can get ridiculously complicated. As the show’s creator, Michael Schur, explained:
A related question is just who makes it to the Good Place. Here I think Michael is less reliable when he mentions people who didn’t make it. So we don’t really know the real ratio of those who get to the Good Place versus who ends up in the Bad Place. And this leads us to the Eleanor situation.
Eleanor’s situation exposes a troubling problem with the afterlife. She definitely did not earn a spot in the Good Place while she was alive. But over the course of the first season she was able to learn and grow as a person to the point that she was willing to sacrifice herself for others. In other words, she showed a potential for redemption. Does Eleanor still deserve eternal torment in the Bad Place? Should there be some sort of Purgatory for people like her who have the potential for redemption? That seems like a major flaw in the system to me.
Speaking of flaws, the big flaw in Michael’s plan is that he assumes that each of the four souls will be their worst selves. To be fair that is probably his experience from his time working in the Bad Place. But his first attempt at a fake Good Place went off the rails when Eleanor made a truly selfless act by publicly confessing that she didn’t belong in the Good Place. It’s a contingency that never occurred to him and he had no plan for. Eleanor has thwarted Michael twice and it’s quite likely that she will do so a third time by being unpredictable.
Anyway, I know I’m thinking way too much about this stuff. Thanks for reading.
Ghost in the Machine
I have way too much free time