**SPOILER ALERT** This post contains pivotal plot spoilers for the TV series “The Good Place.” If you haven’t watched it, go to Netflix and watch Season One in its entirety before you read. I am not kidding. You are ruining it for yourself. OK, you were warned. 
Recently, while walking through Times Square I was confronted with huge Billboards featuring Ted Danson and Kristen Bell advertising a sit-com called “The Good Place.” I like both comedic actors, and I hadn’t heard of the show, so I started recording it, and then I realized it was in Season Two already, so my daughter & I went back and binge-watched Season One on Netflix.
The premise of the show is intriguing, metaphysically. Kristen Bell plays Eleanor, a woman who has died and “wakes up” on a couch in a waiting room with a sign in front of her that everything is going to be all right. It’s always intriguing, too, to see how Hollywood (most of whom live a somewhat profligate lifestyle compared to say, midwestern bake sale moms) takes on religion, particularly when it’s a comedy. She meets with Michael (played by Ted Danson), who explains that thanks to her good works, she’s in the Good Place, not the Bad Place. (The terms “Heaven” and “Hell” are not used).
Eleanor’s place was assured by her relentless charity work, and she is surrounded by other such superstars of good works. He describes her selfless actions, and then she joins an orientation meeting in which she and the others around her are told that on earth there was a point system awarding them positive points for good actions, negative points for bad ones. The points awarded are pretty funny (see images to the right). For example, eating vegan only nets you 425.94 points, but if you never discuss veganism unprompted, you get 9875.37 points, over 20x the point value! In putting together the point system, the writers are also commenting on what makes a good work valuable, and how do you evaluate good works? The show also includes how our good works affect others, our internal motives for doing them, and the ethical implications. In an interview with Kristen Bell, she talked about meeting with show creator Mike Schur:
Mike always gives this example, which I find interesting: He’s been going to the same Starbucks for years and orders the same thing. He noticed one day that he only tipped when the barista was looking at him. He said, “I was so caught off guard with my own behavior, I thought, ‘What am I in this for?’”
Unfortunately, Eleanor realizes pretty quickly that it’s all a big mistake. The good works ascribed to her by Michael weren’t really hers; due to some bureaucratic error, she’s ended up there accidentally. She knows she’s a fraud. Her actual life choices were fairly unilaterally terrible, not genocide or adultery bad, but stuff like defrauding the elderly, being rude to strangers, refusing to sign a petition, going to a party instead of feeding her friend’s dog when the friend was out of town, drunkenly crashing someone’s christening, etc.
What’s “The Good Place” like, according to architect Michael who takes Eleanor on a tour? It looks a lot like a clean, sterile, gated community in which every person has his or her own house, catered to personal tastes, and also–bonus!–soulmates are real, and Michael introduces each person to their soulmate based on a complex algorithm. Eleanor is paired with a Senegalese Ethics professor named Chidi. Other features:
- Lots of frozen yogurt shops with over 300 flavors, including one called “empty inbox” which replicates that feeling when you’ve just finished clearing your emails. Another great one is “Fully Charged Cell Phone Battery.” For more flavors see here.
- Clam Chowder and Hawaiian Pizza are also local favorites, with many restaurants based solely on these foods.
- Swearing is not allowed because some of the locals don’t like it. Eleanor, who is a real potty-mouth keeps finding this a problem with rants like “Fork! Fork! Why can’t I say fork?” When Chidi (her soulmate) explains the no-profanity rule, she exclaims with an eyeroll, “Well, that’s bullshirt!”
“What is it with you and frozen yogurt? Have you not heard of ice cream?” Eleanor asks Michael, finally confronting the issue we’ve all been wondering about.
“Oh sure, but I’ve come to really like frozen yogurt,” he answers. “There’s something so human about taking something and ruining it a little so you can have more of it.”
Witty observations like this are a great reason to keep tuning in. In saying something about what makes us human, it also says something about what we humans find rewarding and appealing. We may think ice cream is better than frozen yogurt, but we also like to get more of something, even if it’s not as good. Don’t mistake wittiness for superficiality, though. As Kristen Bell put it in her interview:
Once you capture someone’s attention with the laughter, you do find these spots where you can insert these moral or ethical examinations, as Mike has chosen to do. It’s sort of how I feel about John Oliver. It’s brazen, intense information with a scaffolding of comedy, and it’s much more digestible.
So, let’s talk about some of the deep discussions that this weird screwball comedy is teeing up. They are very relevant for people who believe in any kind of eternal reward or being judged for your works. When asked what religion got it right, Michael laughs and says everyone got just a little bit right, but one stoner in Canada got about 92% of it right in one long half-baked rant. As Mormons, we have a unique theological view of the afterlife that doesn’t necessarily match other faiths, and it’s a topic we talk about often. Some of the same questions we discuss are addressed in the show.
- The role of works, and being judged for our works. We talk a lot about our motives in doing good, and what constitutes doing good.
- Our eternal reward being a place we want to be, where we are comfortable. Eleanor is self-conscious and uncomfortable about being there because she knows she isn’t the paragon of virtue they think she was.
- Although we don’t believe in soulmates, we do believe in eternal marriages, which is more or less how this community is laid out–couples, together with each other forever, like one big multi-diverse retirement community.
- Everything is calm and a bit boring in this eternal community. It’s pleasant, with no arguments and no profanity.
- We discover later in Season One that there is also a Middle Place, where people who were neither good nor bad end up. It’s lonely (no partner) with no progress, but on the upside, you don’t have to deal with other people, and you aren’t being tormented in Hell. (From a Mormon perspective, this is like the three degrees of glory).
Which brings us to another observation the show makes. Eleanor is teaching Michael about being human, and she has him in front of one of those claw games that has prizes in it.
“I didn’t even want that thing. Why am I trying to win it?” Michael asks.
“Because the machine says it’s a prize,” Eleanor answers.
This can also be taken as a meta-observation about Heaven in general. We are supposed to want to go to the Good Place because we are told it’s a reward, but when she gets there, the food is mediocre, the other people are boring, she can’t swear or be herself, and everyone is just so perfect all the time. People quickly start comparing themselves to each other, and even though they all got there, the “best” one is recognized in a ceremony. It all seems very human after all.
***SPOILER ALERT****Which brings us to a huge spoiler. You have all been warned. Yet again.
Eleanor realizes in one big season-ending epiphany that this isn’t the Good Place at all. It’s actually the Bad Place. Michael is actually not an angel, but a devil. He’s just found a way to psychologically torment people by putting their ideas of what Heaven is like into practice and putting them with individuals uniquely designed to torture them.
The real reason Eleanor figures it out rather than the others is that she’s the one who is authentic. The others lack the self-awareness to discover the truth because they mostly believe the idea that they should go to the Good Place until Michael explains what was so awful about them on earth: their motives, their impacts on others, their neediness, their vanity, their selfishness, etc. Of all of them, Eleanor has owned her terribleness openly, if not proudly. Being herself is what makes her able to achieve this insight. They are blind to their real standing because they are too busy thinking of themselves as victims or as good people. They judge themselves too charitably and also care too much about looking good to others to truly internalize how deeply flawed they are. Eleanor is comfortable in her own skin. According to a New Yorker article on this dystopian show:
When the switch flipped, the premise deepened. Most notably, it became clear that Eleanor was the show’s perverse hero—it was her inability to fake politeness, her crude candor, that enabled her to hack Hell. By confessing her flaws, and begging Chidi to help her change, she undermined Michael’s plan. On earth, Eleanor might have been a selfish loner, but in Hell she was an existential rebel, the woman who found a way to get kinder in a system designed to make her mean.
This is where the show makes an incredibly smart point about people in general, but particularly religious people: our idea of an eternal reward is based on our own internal ranking system in which we pit our good works against each other and begrudge anything we perceive as unfairly advantageous to others or disadvantageous to ourselves. We care more about what others think of us than we do about doing actual good works. We never stop keeping score.
At this point, the show shifts, but in a stoner in Canada mind-blowing sort of way, because since coming to the Good/Bad Place, Eleanor has actually started to become a better person with Chidi’s coaching. Another idea in Mormonism is that of multiple probations, or the idea that you can still continue to progress, including from a lower kingdom to a higher kingdom. In a further twist in Season Two, Eleanor forces Michael to agree to take ethics lessons from Chidi also. Maybe you can even make a devil behave ethically with the right support network.
I have no idea where the series will end up, but so far, for a daffy screwball comedy with only 22 minutes a week to work with, it has teed up some very deep thoughts. Here are a few for discussion:
- If you were designing the Celestial Kingdom, what would it be like? What would people be doing?
- Do eternal families motivate you to be good? Does the idea of an eternal reward motivate you? What about avoiding eternal punishment? Which motivates you more?
- Does the idea of eternity from church sound appealing to you? Why or why not?
- How do you believe the final judgment will work? Do you think it’s a tally of good and bad works or that it’s just an overall assessment of the person you are? How does grace fit in with that?
- Do you think people will be able to progress and learn even after death?
- What do you think eternal judgment will be like for those lacking in self-awareness?
 Incidentally, accidentally spoiling the plot merits -10,585 points.