Searching for The Good Place Within America
When the pilot of The Good Place—a breezy comedy about what it means to be a good person in the afterlife—first aired last September, a large portion of America, including me, was gearing for the end of a long and draining election season with relatively high hopes. By the time the season finale aired in January, revealing that the so-called “Good Place” was actually Hell, not Heaven, Steve Bannon was already in the White House, and Donald Trump was only a week away from instituting his immigration ban. It felt, perhaps, a little too fitting for the times.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The premise of the show is simple and charmingly executed; Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is accidentally sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place, then attempts to denounce her rude, crass demeanor on earth in order to become a better person and keep her spot in heaven. Of course, things go awry and it seems as if her actions are causing the Good Place itself to crumble (shrimp falling from the sky, giant holes appearing in the ground, etc.) After the truth is revealed, a verdict on her fate must be made, pressuring the characters around her into an ethical dilemma with difficult consequences.
It’s not hard to find an emotional parallel between the arc of The Good Place‘s first season and America’s own disintegration into chaos. The show’s afterlife illustrates a system that is initially supposed to be fair in its judgment of morals and character. The system fails. But why, and how is it going to be fixed? Who are the people who get hurt along the way? These are questions we frantically ask ourselves now about our political process. Eleanor is the first to realize—when her commitment to change is questioned as insufficient for redemption—that while the Good Place touts itself as “good,” filled with flawless, selfless people, and endless amounts of frozen yogurt, it lacks transparency into its structure and justice in its reckoning. And if something is not honest and just, is it actually good?
The answer is no. We come to understand, in retrospect, that the afterlife of the Good Place imposes the idea of equity without ever grappling with its rough edges. Through multiple Lost-style flashbacks, we see a terrible Eleanor who ditches dog-sitting for a Rihanna concert and profits off turning her friend into an embarrassing internet meme. We also see an Eleanor who has to buy her own birthday cake as a child because her parents simply forgot she existed. On the opposite spectrum, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), a sweet university ethics professor, is seen hurting those around him over the course of his life as he prioritizes his commitment to virtue and truth above all else.
The revelation of Heaven being Hell in the season’s final moments is a remarkable one, partly due to its sweeping condemnation of polar opposites Eleanor and Chidi in a single moment, and its implied disregard for context in the decision process, focusing only on the outcomes as determinants for equity. Eleanor and Chidi’s defining characteristics—that Eleanor is a product of her upbringing and Chidi is a kind person lacking people skills—are undermined by the consequences of their actions. In the end, they’re just bad people. We discover that all the characters have been put together in a Truman Show-esque setting with the purpose of torturing each other into eternity, their personalities forever clashing and providing entertainment for those in charge.
The 2016 election saw politics turn Hell into a spectacle. People liked Trump for his honesty and crass rebukes of liberal America and disliked Hillary for her blown-up scandals and stiff demeanor. These images riled the public and sensationalized the news. In the process, the defining characteristics of these two people—that Trump was a reality television celebrity looking to capitalize on a vengeful conservative population, and Hillary an experienced politician with a rough past but sensible policies—got buried under the weight of laughs and cynicism and panic. As Emily Nussbaum wrote in the New Yorker:
Trump’s call to Make America Great Again was a plea to go back in time, to when people knew how to take a joke. It was an election about who owned the mike.
This is definitely a worn out message now. The election is long over. These are things we know.
What puzzles me, I guess, is the underlying sentiment of Democrats that considers the election an ugly turn for America. An ugly turn for America. A “turn,” as if we were driving in the correct direction and got lost. We are not living in a Heaven that suddenly decided to become a Hell; we are, in many ways, like Eleanor and Chidi, navigating a Hell once thought of as Heaven, trying to comprehend who we are without the assurance of our surroundings. The extent to which people will compromise to regain that assurance in their lives is vast.
Eleanor spent her time trying to become more compassionate and caring, because she believed it was something that mattered. That society valued it enough to understand she was more than her childhood. We often talk about the large portion of Trump supporters in America as something sprung up rather than revealed, because it’s difficult to imagine they existed under the same timeline as the Obama presidency. We spent those years with an administration that fought for things like marriage equality, healthcare, and reproductive rights; it’s scary to think that our progress spurned them on, which it did. But it’s scarier, perhaps, to see people questioning their liberalism (“are we making things worse?”) in response to that realization. As if somehow, what’s right is based not on the substance of the belief, but on how society views and reacts to it.
The season finale twist subverts Eleanor’s progress by proving that being good does not improve her position at all. In fact, it only provides for more amusement to the people running the show. The real question posed by The Good Place is not “what does it mean to be a good person?” but rather a more urgent dilemma: “what does it mean to be a good person when being a ‘good person’ doesn’t matter?” The viewer is forced to confront the notion that the system can’t be patched up through niceties or rationality, because it’s not there to be fair—it’s there to manipulate, to deceit.
The Hell we are seeing now has always been around, lurking in the shadows. We are not dealing with small flukes in a morally sound world; we are dealing with systematic, large picture issues, and to fix our political process, we have to acknowledge this first. Before her memory is erased, Eleanor still puts her faith in goodness, even after everything, a significant victory in a bleak universe. It won’t come from the other people in the Good Place, though. It has to come from her. Her group of friends, all “bad” characters abruptly aware of a system rigged against them, emerge unified.
These past few weeks we’ve seen a lot of things crumble, things that used to matter by societal definition. Sally Yates was fired for refusing to enforce an immigration ban. Gavin Grimm watched protections against transgender discrimination get revoked. Standing Rock protesters were cleared out of their camps against their will. It’s clear that fighting for civil rights and liberal ideals is no longer to our benefit, and yet, we remember these moments because they represent a yearning to better ourselves, to be good, even when being good has lost its benefits. They also remind us, above all, that while it seems like everything has gone to Hell, at least we have each other to help us through it.
Trump’s America may be ruthless, but no one is fighting alone. Like Eleanor and her friends in The Good Place, our circumstances don’t define our values. We define them.