First of all, it’s really funny
For a comedy show, this is the most important quality — the quality without which nothing else matters — and ‘The Good Place’ doesn’t disappoint.
Tahani is a name-dropping, upper-crust socialite who once shocked her parents by eating a Cheeto — she reported the experience as “deafening.” Jason is a dimwitted failed DJ whose worst-case scenario in life is when he’s waiting for the bass to drop at a Skrillex concert, and… it never comes. Chidi is a moral philosophy professor constitutionally unable to take decisive action — he missed his mom’s back surgery because he promised his landlord’s nephew he would help him figure out his new phone. And Eleanor is an Arizona lush who once said, “I’ve only ever said ‘I love you’ to two men my entire life: Stone Cold Steve Austin, and a guy in a dark club who I mistook for Stone Cold Steve Austin.”
Second, it’s smart
Chidi’s ethical quandaries offer a backbone to plot development, but not in a heavy way. It’s like the writers are wandering through the history of moral philosophy and cherry-picking Kant and Aristotle gems for a grounded, comic effect. This is what it would feel like to go out for beers with the cool TAs from your Philosophy 101 class. (Which makes one wonder, are there cool TAs from Philo 101? It would seem there are a few, anyway, and they’re writing for ‘The Good Place.’)
The playful banter in the show has changed some of my thinking, too. I find myself taking a closer look at the small decisions I make in my daily life and applying some of the ethical principles bandied about in the show. But the intellectual playfulness goes deeper, because the characters all use the philosophy as a jumping off point to do something, to change something about themselves.
All the figures in the show are earnestly striving for moral goodness, even if they try many different avenues to reach it. It’s refreshing to watch a TV show — in any genre — where that struggle is not only made real, but brought to the fore and examined. All the characters — even the immortal ones — struggle with selfish desires and their responsibilities to one another. They try on different approaches to see what works, discard them when they run into limits, and constantly weigh within their hearts the effect of their actions and what they are learning. (Except for Jason, though. He’s just happy to be there.)
The show encourages me to take my conscience seriously — to attend to how I form and care for it. Being good is a constant struggle — we do our best with what we have, but most areas of life are in the grey and we have to balance incomplete information and competing desires. At the end of the day, we have to pay attention to the place within us where God’s voice speaks, and we have to pay attention to protecting and nurturing that place so that we can hear God’s voice more clearly.
Thirdly: it makes heaven (and hell) real
Literally anything is possible in heaven and hell, which leaves the field wide open for creative comedy: think parties with puppy pits, flying bird suits, and unicorns you can ride.
The constructions of heaven and hell are not very reminiscent of the way a Catholic would think of them, but people are judged when they die, and there are demons and a kinda-benevolent judge. There’s a “good place” and a “bad place” and where one ends up depends on a complicated computation that weighs all the good actions in your life against the bad actions, giving you an afterlife point total. And while that’s a rather childish way to understand the judgment that will happen when we die, it’s contextualized in comedy and used to good effect.
The Christian tradition has long held to the importance of remembering death. It’s a meditation called memento mori (literally, “remember death”), and it appears in western art (think of portraits with the subject holding a skull) as well as Catholic religious practice (think of Ash Wednesday or the Mexican festival of the Day of the Dead). There’s even a tweeting nun who has recorded thoughts tagged with #mementomori that come from spending more than a year with a skull on her desk.
Day 423 with a 💀 on my desk:
Imagine how much differently everyone would live if we really believed and reminded ourselves daily that "there is nothing hidden that will not become visible and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light" (Lk 8:17).#mementomori
— Sr. Theresa Aletheia (@pursuedbytruth) September 24, 2018
Remembering death casts our current lives against the horizon of our eternal lives, which is a good impetus to put our house in order. It reminds us that this life is finite and that what we do here shapes our eternal destiny.
Watching ‘The Good Place’ reminds me that time is a precious gift — it flees all too quickly, so there’s an urgency to doing good and loving others. Pursuing the moral life is important today because we might not get a tomorrow.
And one day, when I find myself on the other side of that judgment — and may that day come later rather than sooner — I hope my point total puts me in the green. Endless shrimp cocktail in the good place sounds much better than the bad place, where one form of torture is being stuck in an endless holiday weekend in Ikea.