Culture

Are you there, God? It’s me, The Good Place

‘The Good Place’ is a rare show — a cultural phenomenon that gets us talking about the afterlife.
Culture

Are you there, God? It’s me, The Good Place

‘The Good Place’ is a rare show — a cultural phenomenon that gets us talking about the afterlife.

“I’m quite sure that God will allow everyone into heaven that can possibly stand it,” the Christian philosopher Dallas Willard once said. The question of who gets into heaven, and how, has provoked religious disagreement and sectarianism since the concept of religion entered human consciousness. It has also, in a charming surprise, been the subject of one of the most popular TV shows of the last year — the Michael Schur-created series The Good Place. When, in recent memory, has a television show led people to talk so much about heaven and hell, and to rethink their preconceptions of what seem like stodgy, irrelevant concepts in a secular society? Suddenly, everyone from the evangelical magazine Christianity Today to The Hollywood Reporter to The New Yorker is thinking about the afterlife. (Warning: spoilers follow from here.)

The show, which wrapped its second season on February 1, stars a Wizard of Oz-like cast of four friends trying to make their way to an unknown but ultimately good destination. Led by Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), the friends initially believe they have landed in heaven after their untimely deaths and are paired up with their soulmates — Eleanor matches with Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor from Senegal, and their neighbor Tahani al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), a condescending and beautiful British socialite, is paired with Buddhist monk Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), who actually turns out to be Jacksonville Jaguars superfan and amateur DJ Jason Mendoza. The neighborhood they live in was designed by architect Michael (like the archangel, played by a perfectly cast Ted Danson) and his omniscient personal assistant, Janet (D’arcy Carden). At the end of the first season, the characters, who have suffered their fair share of slings and arrows in this supposed paradise, learn that they were actually piloting a program for the Bad Place, and not in the Good Place at all. None of them were as good as they thought they were.

But how do we figure out who gets into heaven and who has to go, you know, to the bad place? This has been a major sticking point for Christians throughout the ages. The current, evangelical Christian way of thinking about heaven can often be boiled down to a verse in Ephesians, where the Apostle Paul writes that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God." In other words, and taken in isolation, this verse would seem to imply that it doesn’t matter so much what you DO, as long as you believe the right things. It’s a get-into-heaven-free card.

SELL MORE STUFF

In The Good Place, the “how” of getting into heaven is pretty simple: You do enough good things, and you’re in. No one religion has a monopoly on who gets in. When Eleanor arrives, she asks Michael which religion was right about heaven. “Well, let’s see,” Michael says. “Hindus are a little bit right, Muslims, a little bit right, Jews, Christians, Buddhists...every religion guessed about five percent.”

In this version of reality, every single person is tracked, from the moment they are born until the moment they die, and the sum total of all their good and bad actions commends them either to The Good Place or The Bad Place. For instance, in episode 1, we learn during Michael’s presentation that “fixing a tricycle for a child who loves tricycles” will net you 6.29 points on your life’s roster, while “fixing a tricycle for a child who is indifferent to tricycles” gets you only 0.04 points. Telling a woman to smile will cost you 55 points, and committing genocide will make you lose a whopping 433,860.96 points.

There is something deeply comforting in the straightforward layout here — good people, so determined by the innate goodness of their actions, will go to The Good Place, and bad people to the Bad Place. We are all subject not to some abstract, mysterious God requiring faith and trust, but to an all-knowing algorithm — and in an age where the locus of capitalism is moving away from Wall Street and into Silicon Valley, what is more appropriate object of our faith could there be?

If God will let everyone into heaven who can possibly stand it, we have to wonder what heaven will be like.

Season two of The Good Place centers around Michael’s attempts to perfect his neighborhood — he reboots it over 800 times — and the friends' eventual decision to team up with Michael to avoid the wrath of Shawn. Shawn is Michael’s boss, and the closest thing we get to a Satanic figure in The Good/Bad Place. (There is a Middle Place, of which Mindy St. Clair, with her bland suburban house and unfulfilled longings for more cocaine — she died in the ’80s — is the sole resident. She is alone on the Mountain of Purgatory, only there doesn’t seem to be much soul-cleansing going on. Mostly she cuts up old Anne Rice novels to create her own smutty books.)

If God will let everyone into heaven who can possibly stand it, we have to wonder what heaven will be like. Is it a mansion for each person, on Simpsons-fluffy clouds? Is it an eternal choir? Or is it, as some Christians have long believed, life on this earth, the resurrection of our physical bodies, and the perfection of everything that caused harm and suffering? There is a beautiful promise in the book of Revelation that describes how, in “the new heaven and the new earth,” God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Satan, in the Bible, was an angel from heaven who rebelled against God and, hungry for more power of his own, took a handful of other angels to hell. In The Good Place, Michael turns out to have been a demon from the Bad Place who rebelled against his boss and took his friends in search of heaven. There is one particularly poignant moment in season two that illustrates just how much Michael has changed. Eleanor and the gang have decided to leave the neighborhood to plead their case in front of an eternal judge. They have to follow the (metaphorical) breadcrumbs that Michael has left for them, since only he knows the way to the judge who will ultimately decide their fate.

Unsure of whether Michael is trustworthy but convinced that he is their best hope, they choose to follow his clues, waiting for him underneath the train that ferrets the rest of their neighbors away to the real Bad Place. Michael, who has been frantically searching for the four friends, finally spots them once the train has rumbled away. The look in his eyes is wild with fear, then shocked, then teary. He hugs Eleanor tight. “I was so scared,” he says. “You’re my friends, and I wanted to save you.”

“No longer do I call you servants,” Jesus says in John 15, “but I have called you friends.” And at the very end of his life, when he is near death on a cross between two thieves, Jesus asks God to forgive the men who are killing them, because “they know not what they do.” They were his friends, and he wanted to save them.

“Unhappy individuals who hope never have the same pain as those who remember,” wote Soren Kierkegaard — the Danish philosopher of whom Chidi is so fond — wrote in Either/Or. In The Good Place, there is no memory — or, rather, memory is limited to whatever Michael chooses for you, as he can reboot the characters at any time, entirely erasing their memories. There is a kind of pain that they get to escape by having no memories — and one of the great questions of Judeo-Christian theology is how, exactly, God remembers. God is a God of remembrance — He remembers His people, their trials, their actions, their sins. Memory brings pain. There is no getting around the fact that an omniscient God knows and recalls all that we do, which is a terrifying prospect.

What are we to make of that? Does The Good Place get it right? It might, although in the book of Isaiah it is God, not people, who forgets in heaven: “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” In this way, God’s forgetting — His choice not to remember — is the very thing that saves people from their sins and allows them into heaven.

The people of The Good Place, like all of us, are mixed bags. Eleanor is selfish and capable of incredible loyalty. Chidi is indecisive and deeply principled. Jason seems every bit the douchebag Floridian amateur DJ, but even amateur DJs can love. And Tahani, who lived in her older sister’s shadow her whole life, is beginning to understand how she can help others without hogging the limelight.

Plenty of television shows have dabbled with overt religious themes to middling success. Seventh Heaven and Touched by an Angel were the two I watched when nothing else good was on, but their picture of Christianity never looked familiar to me, even though I have spent my entire life solidly within the church. Shows like The Leftovers and The Path deal with the overwhelming vicissitudes of religious fervor, but the circumstances of both shows are extreme enough that it’s hard for the average viewer to see themselves reflected within. Shows like Black-ish and Jane the Virgin remind us of the central role religion plays in the lives of their characters, but the main action is entirely secular. Hell, even The Real Housewives of Orange County featured a baptism subplot, although not without another woman interrupting the party by saying she was being “nailed to the cross like Jesus was” for participating in her boyfriend’s cancer scam — but that’s another story.

The Good Place has succeeded where so many other television shows have tried and failed: It has become a cultural phenomena for the way it depicts religion as surprising and commonplace, funny and human. Anyone who watches the show can spot themselves in the characters — indeed, a popular quiz swept the internet a few weeks ago asking people to identify themselves as a combination of two of The Good Place’s protagonists. This is the reason for the show’s success: We all wonder what happens after we die, and we all hope that, despite our shortcomings, we will find ourselves among friends, still living in some fashion, still ourselves.

If The Good Place has a gospel, it is the gospel of self-improvement. It’s slightly different, though, from the Protestant, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps work ethic that has dominated politics and culture in America for centuries. The Good Place isn’t so much transcendent as it is absurd — heaven as rendered by Picasso or Joseph Heller — and hopeful, with that hope being fully staked in a person’s ability to get better only with the help of their community. Eleanor learns moral philosophy from Chidi, yes, but Chidi also learns from Eleanor about how to live without fear. Jason, whose unending loyalty to his earthly best friend Pillboy is what led to his untimely death — he suffocated in an airtight safe the pair were using as a prop to rob a pizza joint, naturally — teaches the narcissistic Tahani how to be a good friend to people who are different than she is. And Michael, a little in awe of how this group of terrible humans could band together and care for one another, slowly ceases to become their torturer, and becomes their friend. “If even a demon can change,” William Jackson Harper told GQ, “maybe people can get their acts together.”

That is the message of The Good Place — that there is hope for everyone, no matter how we started out, to become better. In the season two finale, Eleanor ultimately finds redemption in a “redo” of her life on earth. She is tested, watched over like Job, and despite a few relapses into selfishness she ultimately pursues goodness. There is hope, The Good Place wants to say, even for the most seemingly hopeless cases.

(Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Jameela Jamil’s name.)

Laura Turner is a writer in San Francisco.