Review originally published on The New York Times Learning Network.
I have a notoriously short attention span. See: the fact that I never watched the cult-popular show “Stranger Things” – the first minute bored me. But sitcom “The Good Place” somehow immediately piqued my interest: with its unnaturally cheery lighting and intriguing premise, it practically screams a promise of a good time. To devout Christians and Buddhists and atheists alike, it sums up the afterlife into the Good Place… and the ominous, self-explanatory Bad Place.
It seems simple. After death, humans go to either place based on the balance between good and bad actions during their time on earth. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in the Good Place, but with comically timed flashbacks, soon realizes that she undoubtedly does not belong in this land of philanthropic frozen-yogurt enthusiasts. Her upbeat ignorance towards her own immorality initially makes her a ditzy protagonist, but ironically as the season progresses, she becomes the only one with any true clarity, showing that when you put your mind to it, there’s nothing you “Immanuel Kant” do. Throughout the characters’ hilarious antics, don’t be fooled into thinking “The Good Place” gets predictable… spoiler alert: it never does!
With startling self-awareness, the twists of this utopia-turned-dystopia are riddled with wittily delivered jabs at the tendencies of human nature, as seen when Michael (Ted Danson) declares, “Now we’re going to do the most human thing of all: attempt something futile with a ton of unearned confidence and fail spectacularly!” It panders to the audience, slyly poking fun at our own humanity: after all, isn’t this the course of life? Viewers watch as Eleanor endeavors to improve from her corrupt life of telemarketing drugs to the elderly, becoming enthralled in this exploration of what it really means to be a good person. Is it holding the door open for others? Is it ignoring the selfish urge to steal all the cocktail shrimps? Is it knowing all of Plato’s complex philosophical theories like the back of your hand?
Through existential crises and unexpected revelations, viewers are increasingly shown that nothing is black-and-white — this world even features a literal Middle Place. The plot may be unpredictable, but its overarching theme of ethics becomes consistently more important and insightful in this age. As our current nation confirms a man onto the Supreme Court because he sexually assaulted a woman while only being “a boy in college” and school shootings continue due to contentious beliefs around our “right to bear arms,” the ethical battle between the overall good versus personal values rages on.
“The Good Place,” an unexpectedly profound sitcom, does a remarkable job of not only compellingly discussing morality, but also the persistence of human nature; all of this is accomplished while remaining both tasteful and immensely entertaining, leaving viewers wanting more. Take it from Eleanor: striving to become a better person is what matters most — preferably before death. We can make our mark on earth however we choose to; but while figuring out the moral path may stump us some of the time, I would argue that humans aren’t perfect, but we do our best. To quote Eleanor’s ethics teacher, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper): “I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.”