The Better Place

The Good Place pilot aired in September 2016; two months later, any optimism about our nation’s advancement had to contend with the acknowledgement that our country, like so many of its predecessors and contemporaries, could experience a fall.

Though I’d hoped that we had done enough to prevent Trump’s potential presidency, it was never an idle threat. And once it became official, I moved through the world differently. Polite, neutral interactions rang hollow. No amount of speculation felt alarmist as each entry in the parade of horribles became distinctly feasible. I returned again and again to the words of Theodore Parker. “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” This had sounded like a promise when paraphrased by Dr. King, and then again by President Obama. But as checks, balances, and constitutional guarantees were eclipsed behind a dangerously chaotic leader who exalted violent bigotry, I began to question whether what I had taken as truth was simply a long-dead abolitionist’s uncertain but sincere hope.

Like many others, I also experienced a drastic shift in how I spent my time. Time I didn’t know I could spare was soon filled with advocacy, action items, petitions, and protests. I found friends and communities who were similarly taking stock in what aspects of our society we could salvage, pleading for the lives and humanity of the very many in peril, and bracing ourselves for a rising death toll. It was exhausting. It often seemed ineffective. And while our mental health was suffering, taking a break felt like fleeing the fight when the country needed us most.

I guiltily allowed myself to relax a few hours a week. The recommendations for how to fill that time rolled in: The Good Place was a gem and I should be watching it right now. It was a sitcom, ostensibly about the misadventures of an attractive white woman whose actions were harming the pious people of color whom she had erroneously joined in paradise. But friends encouraged me to stick with it, urging it as important viewing without specifying why. And so I watched, warily, protective of my downtime. Thankfully, the show’s setup was not what it delivered.

What The Good Place provided instead was something much more narratively rewarding, and also timely and relevant. The recommendations had been so furtive because The Good Place is difficult to discuss. Its first season revealed the entire premise was based in deception, leaving the characters victim to cruel misdirection and the viewers unable to elaborate without spoilers. Season 1 purports to show us someone dealing with a cosmic case of impostor syndrome but then flips the script: people who had hoped to inherit a paradise discovered that it was in fact the twisted construction of more powerful, ancient beings who cared nothing for their welfare.

Following this initial reveal, each season’s improbable and compelling ending has been upended by its successor. It is thrilling to see this unfold at every stage, but the significance of The Good Place goes far beyond its expert storytelling and subversion. It’s an incisive and deeply witty program that lets us work through our collective angst by creating a fantasy afterlife with absurdist criteria where we can nonetheless grapple with moral philosophy and real questions of redemption, ability to change, capacity to love, and motivations for growth.

This television universe is quick to distinguish itself from any actual belief system or faith and populates the farcical afterlife with a blessedly diverse lineup of multicultural strangers from different classes and upbringings, who are integral to each other’s salvation. As Season 2 teases out what it means to be redeemable, its central characters live out hundreds of scenarios, both supernatural and mundane. In all, the key is to persevere in learning from and listening to each other. Consistently, part of their redemption is in their ability to value those who are unlike themselves.

Even as episodes swing toward the bizarre, The Good Place centers around a need to define and live out morality and personal responsibility. And in the age of Trump, we viewers are doing the same. Because something else happened after election night 2016. I saw many who had positioned themselves as relative authorities on morality, discernment, and logic easily taken by the Trump administration’s self-evident grift. As the months and seasons progressed, they embraced his deception, greed, and bigotry, leaving two possibilities: that they had at last been given license to express their long-simmering hate, or that they wholly lacked the wisdom they had claimed.

This became a depressing commonality among my peer group—we all could identify lost leaders. Teachers, clergy, family, friends, and/or mentors who had taught us to stand up for what’s right even when it’s unpopular, who warned us about the perils of falling in with those who lack wisdom and common sense, and who were wary of what we might stumble upon in the city or in college or on the internet. They helped us define our moral code and influenced who we are today; and then we watched them excuse abuses and champion cruelty. Parents ridiculed principles they had raised their children to uphold. Preachers twisted their theology to fit their company, now praising presidential behavior they had long identified as sinful.

But another effect of this administration’s gross misconduct has been to catalyze a larger conversation—and more importantly, action—regarding stewardship, truth, and justice. As I mourned these fractured relationships and fallen role models, I also joined my friends in reflecting on what our leaders and elders taught us, and what we learned from their examples. Comparing this with the current, cartoonishly stark illustration of immorality being passed off as normalcy, we know that it falls to those of us who care to make things right. This leaves us grappling with an important question: how do we define morality for ourselves? What principles have not been sullied or co-opted? Was everything they told us a lie, or were they simply poor stewards of the principles they espoused?

We have had to become deliberate and contemplative about how we form a moral code and put good into the world. And so we find ourselves watching a TV show about moral philosophy and a battle to save souls from a comical depiction of eternal torment and damnation, for escapism and catharsis.

We watch this show about people learning to be honest about who they are and striving to be good, as we do the same. The Good Place is about learning how to care, making others care, and how it feels when those who don’t care are exponentially more powerful than you and implicated in a system beyond your comprehension or control. This journey follows four humans who live and relive varied lives in which we see ourselves. Some of us start as Eleanor, realizing the ways that we have had to protect and defend ourselves have left us apathetic, self-absorbed, and petty. Some of us came into this situation as Chidi, having been well aware of the world’s problems and deeply invested in justice, yet seemingly damned and ineffective in the face of it. Others may be Tahani, swaddled by our own privilege and disheartened as our strides toward selflessness only clarify how out of touch we have been at every turn. And some of us are Jason: earnest and eager but suspecting that we lack the skills or knowledge we need to make a difference in critical times. Throughout the series, all have dramatic moments of enlightenment and healing, just as all of us have the capacity for growth.

Noting the relatability of the central four, I also think of those who got swept up in the toxic zeal of the administration or other acts of injustice along the way. Far too many doubled down on this allegiance, letting it become their identity and siphoning it for belonging and legitimacy. But some who were swindled realized as much and did the right thing—they began working to mitigate this harm.

Their arc might be reflected in the architect. Getting Michael to care is a process that starts only with his fear of personal consequences. But true change begins when he comes to know and listen to those who would be harmed by the forces he once supported. He learns about their lives and does what he can to adopt their perspective. He believes them. And then he becomes their advocate and ally. Michael can see the system working and the vulnerable souls being moved through it. As he grows to care, understand, and accept his own complicity in it, he also discovers that this alone is not enough to correct the system and resolve the problem. Importantly, he learns that redemption is collective—not about merely saving his soul or himself from torment, but about building a more just system, in which others can be saved as well.

In Season 3, Michael puts everything on the line in the name of justice. He tries to pursue it through the expected channels, even when this risks his reputation and future. But what’s more, he uses his access to knowledge, tools, and spaces, working both within the system and outside of it, to elevate those who cannot so engage. And each time this fails, he interrogates why, and refuses to accept the narrative being sold: that those unlike him are simply unworthy. Michael exhibits tremendous growth and persistence in his move from antipathy to empathy, from complicity to rectification.

A different kind of evolution is seen in Janet, the most knowledgeable and powerful being in the central cast. But what makes Janet unique, critical, and beloved is her self-improvement. While we know in canon that our Janet is one of many Good Janets, all of whom are faultless beings, she becomes something far greater. Her curiosity, caring, and feelings grow, bringing with them vulnerability, embarrassment, and heartbreak—but also a desire and resolve to do the right thing even when there is no blueprint for what that would be.

And The Good Place provides us with a comparison of what she might be otherwise. In Season 1 we meet a Good Janet’s antithesis—an uncouth, unhelpful, and antagonistic Bad Janet. But Season 3 also gives us a glimpse of Neutral Janet. That is, Janet’s extraordinary potential squandered, literally neutral in the face of injustice, and languishing as a tool of the establishment.

The Good Place is overt in showing those who have benefitted from an unjust system being called to do more in the fight for justice. Both Michael and Janet have—and are aware that they have—more power and privileges than do their human counterparts. And making this even more plain, Michael and Janet (while they are not technically people) present as and are described as white. When they discover the deep, troubling problems with the points system and those who oversee it, Michael must resist the instinct to simply bemoan the process and disengage. Janet, an accountability partner among many other things, observes that a change is vital and that Michael is the one who has to make it. And so instead they fight to fix the system because they believe in what it was intended to do, and because they now know vulnerable people hanging in the balance. They have done the work of understanding the stakes and empathizing. And they serve as a reminder that sometimes the solution is indeed beyond our control—but sometimes it is only beyond our comfort.

And often, even comfort is elusive, and the struggle not to despair and disengage is relentless. I daily hover between disappointment and disgust, fighting not to become numb to repeated breaches of trust. I see others belittled, bullied, and disregarded by those who once purported to love and protect them. Calls for civility claim that our nation is being torn apart, without acknowledging that centuries of bigotry and selfishness put these perforations in place. We can plainly track the greed, inhospitality, and hate that led us here. We can plainly observe how the same is being glorified today.

And now, as we work to move forward, I see leaders use seemingly inexhaustible resources to ensure that the rich stay rich regardless of how their consumption affects those who come after them, that those who came to live in this country during an arbitrarily defined period of time are treated as its true citizens, and that white men remain at the top of the power structure. They may intend Christian men specifically, though they redefine Christianity daily, reshaping it in their mouths and spitting out whatever fits the current conversation, and never letting it take the form of the actual relevant teachings of Jesus.

I have lost faith in these leaders, and in those who continue to embrace them. But I have not lost faith overall. And I am not alone. Those currently in power attempt to gaslight us, forgetting that we can access our own light. We can see through the hypocrisy.

Author Rachel Held Evans brilliantly demonstrated maintaining conviction in the face of sober disillusionment. In her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, she said:

I’ve watched people get so entangled in this snare they contort into shapes unrecognizable. When you can’t trust your own God-given conscience to tell you what’s right, or your own God-given mind to tell you what’s true, you lose the capacity to engage the world in any meaningful, authentic way, and you become an easy target for authoritarian movements eager to exploit that vacuity for their gain.

As we continue to fight on every front, our leaders plainly demonstrate how critical it is to have a basic moral foundation—and not merely to claim one in order to deceive its adherents. The importance of this is beautifully reflected in a speech by civil rights attorney and The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander. One week before The Good Place aired in 2016, she commented on her move from legal faculty to seminary:

[T]here are times I worry that I have completely lost my mind. Who am I to teach or study at a seminary? I was not raised in a church. And I have generally found more questions than answers in my own religious or spiritual pursuits. But I also know there is something much greater at stake in justice work than we often acknowledge. Solving the crises we face isn’t simply a matter of having the right facts, graphs, policy analyses, or funding. And I no longer believe we can “win” justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. Yes, we absolutely must do that work, but none of it—not even working for some form of political revolution—will ever be enough on its own. Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.”

Those who wish to benefit from injustice will always seek to normalize it, changing the narrative to present theirs as the moral path. But morality is something that we can reclaim from institutions which have been weaponized against the most vulnerable. We can interrogate these systems, which have been created by those more powerful than us, and determine what can be decolonized and what must be dismantled. Like Michael, we can question what may have worked for previous generations, and perhaps was forged in good faith, while acknowledging the harm it currently causes.

And The Good Place, at its most painfully literal, also reminds us that sometimes even our most exhaustive and exhausting attempts to work within a system will not yield the results we need. I felt this deeply when watching the six travel through time and space just to get stonewalled by a committee whose empathy is exceeded only by its ineffectiveness. Fantasy mixes with bureaucracy, injecting jarring bouts of realism into the journey.

The series most recently revealed that the points system in The Good Place—first hilariously arbitrary in its articulation of social wrongs such as taking off your socks on an airplane—is actually broken. It’s antiquated, out of touch, and doing violence in the name of justice. It is maintained and defended by those who have no idea what it means to live in the real world—to try and strive and want to improve society, help others, and be at peace.

The error, we learn, is that the once-perfect placement system has not evolved with the increasing complexity of human life. It becomes clear that the system is penalizing those who try to be good, and that in the exponentially connected modern world, even the most judicious, selfless actions have unforeseen consequences, making getting in to the Good Place functionally impossible. We don’t yet know where the continued trials of The Good Place will take our protagonists, but only that the fight for justice and salvation continues. (Editors’ Note: Shortly after the completion of this essay, it was announced that The Good Place will conclude with the upcoming Season 4.)

From our side of the screen, we strive to make the real world a better place, constantly defending our policies and our politics. We muscle through insincere debates as human suffering is reduced to talking points and statistics to be argued or dismissed by pundits and politicians. We work to find concrete ways to better the world, and to find the will to effectuate change. And as we move forward, we strive not to be like those we are working to unseat.

Chicago activist and pastor Jamie Frazier has said the one thing the church can offer better than the secular world is reconciliation. Concepts of redemption, grace, and wholly undeserved mercy are near foolishness when removed from a spiritual context. The advantages of finding a moral or spiritual center are greater than simply the fact that we can do better—can be better than others who slid into power. Unless we can tether ourselves to something greater and better than ourselves, we will be tossed around, as selfish as those we work to disarm.

What matters is that we do not lose faith in having faith. That we keep striving and imparting an ethos of redemption, compassion, justice, honesty, and love to all those we can influence. We must continue to seek out a moral or spiritual awakening. Only then may we have a chance to mend what those driven by greed and bigotry have broken.

In Season 3, the four humans learn that their knowledge of the Good Place has irrevocably tainted their motives and prevented their ability to ever enter it. They eventually come to terms with this and resolve to try “just a little bit to put good into the world.” Good, a concept so elusive and indefinable that it had spawned three seasons of lessons in moral philosophy, became suddenly much simpler. And Eleanor, the frequent pupil who throughout the series must fight numbness and a deeply ingrained instinct to sabotage or disengage, notes that “We aren’t getting into the Good Place, but there are still people in the world that we care about; so why not try? It’s better than not trying.” In this moment, they know they won’t make it to sitcom TV heaven, but they aren’t looking for a reward. They just want to bring heaven here.

 

Karlyn Ruth Meyer

Karlyn Ruth Meyer is a former singer-songwriter with a career in legal education. You can find her writing in Lady Science, Uncanny Magazine, legal publications, and small video games. She spends her dwindling free time as a community organizer, volunteer, and speaker. Other passions include friendship and learning new things with her endlessly curious kid. She tweets @karlyn_darlin.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.