No good deed goes unpunished. That could be the tagline of NBC’s hit sitcom The Good Place, an unusual tale about the afterlife and the journey to becoming a better person, premiering its fourth and final season Thursday.
The Good Place has accomplished something network television rarely does: it has everyone – from Hollywood, to the church, to professors of philosophy and ethics – abuzz with questions about Heaven and Hell, God and Satan, and how we choose our fate. Rolling Stone calls it “an essential guide for staying sane in the age of Trump.” The New York Times compares it to “Heaven if it were run by Whole Foods.” Christianity Today says it’s “not so much a send up of Christian beliefs as an amusing working out of the peculiar state of the American moral conscience.”
“Dead people who read moral philosophy isn’t a good pitch for a network TV show,” creator Michael Schur joked in a new Hulu special The Paley Center Salutes The Good Place.
Schur is right, and fortunately, the show is so much more than that. The Good Place follows a group of four humans post-mortem as they arrive Heaven-side of the afterlife in The Good Place: selfish saleswoman Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) , anxiety-ridden philosopher Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), self-serving philanthropist Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Florida-native DJ Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). Eleanor quickly learns her arrival in The Good Place is a clerical error, and must ensure neighborhood architect Michael (yes, named after the archangel and played by the legendary Ted Danson) believes she belongs. [Spoiler alert!] We learn at the end of season one Michael is really a demon, and The Good Place is his elaborate scheme to torture the four humans by making them annoy each other for eternity.
“Hindus are a little bit right. Muslims are a little bit right, Jews, Christians, Buddhists…every religion guessed about five percent,” Michael explains to Eleanor upon her arrival in The [Not-So] Good Place.
While we may all have gotten it a little right, some Christians have gone as far as to call The Good Place a modern day parable.
Christians believe the path to Heaven is made clear in a letter from Apostle Paul in Ephesians: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God.” Sometimes this is taken as a free-for-all pass to do as you’d like on Earth; no need to worry, you’re saved. The Good Place questions this theology, operating instead on a video game-style system of positive and negative points for good and bad actions. Only the best of the best with the highest scores can get in. No God, just math. Well, and Maya Rudolph.
The show’s idealogy was largely inspired by 1944 existentialist play Huis Clois (No Exit), where three people arrive in a version of Hell they didn’t expect: no devices of torture in sight, just each other in a room. They soon realize their three personalities clash in perfect conflict, hence the film’s most famous line: “l’enfer, c’est les autres” which translates, “hell is other people.” It’s this idea that sparked Schur’s epic plot twist at the end of season one.
“At the beginning it was just like an accidental trip to heaven. Then I was like, ‘Oh no, it’s No Exit, it’s a really advanced No Exit,’” Schur explained in an interview on The Good Place Podcast. “They all have very specific personality traits that drive one of the other ones insane and are miserable.”
THE GOOD PLACE — “Janet (s)” Episode 310 — Pictured: (l-r) William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Kristen Bell as Eleanor, Manny Jacinto as Jason, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, D’Arcy Carden as Janet, Ted Danson as Michael — (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)
The Good Place isn’t overtly religious. In fact, it is often described as a secular version of the afterlife. However, it has succeeded in ways overtly religious shows haven’t in creating real characters, fostering in viewers a real sense of empathy and posing real questions about what it takes to be a good person.
“The people of The Good Place, like all of us, are mixed bags,” writes Laura Turner in The Outline. “Eleanor is selfish and capable of incredible loyalty. Chidi is indecisive and deeply principled. Jason seems every bit the douchebag Floridian amateur DJ, but even amateur DJs can love. And Tahani, who lived in her older sister’s shadow her whole life, is beginning to understand how she can help others without hogging the limelight.”
“If even a demon can change,” William Jackson Harper told GQ, “maybe people can get their acts together.”
If there is hope for the worst of us, there is hope for all of us; a poignant message from The Good Place and perhaps not too far from the gospel of Jesus, either. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says Romans 3:23. Heaven is perfect, and we all fall short of perfection. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be good.
The show grounded in academia and philosophy, which Danson says has three ethics professors on speed dial, poses an important question: what is the difference between acting good and being good?
“We are talking about decency,” said Danson. “We are talking about what it means to lead a good life; that there are consequences to our actions. There are ripple effects. You put out a certain amount of good or a certain amount of bad into the universe, and someone’s watching.”
The fourth and final season of The Good Place premieres on NBC on September 26th.