Which of these two doesn’t look comfortable?
Jean Paul Sartre once wrote “Hell is other people.” He also wrote “Like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for truth.” Neither statement has much obviously to do with The Good Place, a great new TV comedy.
WARNING: EVERYTHING FROM HERE DOWN IS PRETTY MUCH ALL SPOILERS
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) opens her eyes to find herself in a relaxing office waiting room. On the white wall opposite her couch, WELCOME! EVERYTHING IS FINE. is written in bright green letters. Michael (Ted Danson) welcomes her into his office, where he tells her that 1.) she’s dead, and 2.) she made it to the Good Place. The Good Place is kind of a pastel, Disney, planned community Heaven reflecting no religious expectations in particular (every religion apparently got it around 5% right, except for one stoner who guessed 95% of it while high on mushrooms).
Eleanor is introduced to the neighborhood; apparently the Good Place is divided into minutely planned districts, each with 322 residents chosen for their compatibility in this afterlife utopia. She is introduced to her soulmate. All looks rosy.
Except she’s not supposed to be there.
Yes she’s Eleanor Shellstrop, but no none of the memories she sees played on a This Is Your Life screen are hers. She wasn’t a selfless lawyer who saved convicted murderers on death row, or who rescued orphans in war-torn failed states, or cleaned up disaster sites, etc. She was a salesperson for a shady company pushing useless “drugs” on old sick people, an utterly self-centered human being with no apparent redeeming qualities. There’s been a mistake.
Of course she doesn’t want to be discovered and kicked out of the Good Place, so she prevails upon her soulmate, Chidi Anagoyne, in life an ethics professor, to teach her how to be good.
I watched the premier last night, it was delightful, and I highly recommend that everyone catch it and judge for themselves. Especially since I have a strong suspicion that Eleanor and everyone else is being lied to. Something…benevolently sinister is afoot. Can something be benevolently sinister?
Here’s what I mean.
In the first few minutes, you learn that Eleanor’s neighborhood is brand new; everyone arrived more or less at once and gets the same group briefing in the form of a charming video presentation.
What are they are told? That everyone in life accumulates what is, for lack of a better word, karma; deeds which make the universe better go in the positive side of the ledger, while deeds which make the universe worse go in the negative side. Upon death the score is tallied, and only the small fraction who achieve incredibly high scores (as Eleanor had supposedly done) go to the Good Place. Everyone else goes to the Bad Place; a place Michael and his assistant can’t tell you anything about, but from the brief audio-clip sounds pretty unpleasant. Back to this in a minute.
You also learn that Michael was formerly an apprentice; Eleanor’s neighborhood/district is the first one he’s been allowed to design and build on his own. He isn’t even human. He’s far from infallible, and the Good Place’s universal assistant, Janet (who knows everything and can get you anything you need), knows more than he does about what’s going on. But she’s like a protocol-bound artificial intelligence; she has no free will and can’t violate privacy and so on.
You also meet Eleanor’s neighbors: Tahani Al-Jamil, a self satisfied 1-percenter jet setter who constantly name drops her associations with famous people (Princess Di, Johnny Depp, etc) and her Good Deeds, and her soulmate Jianyu, a Buddhist monk who still maintains a vow of silence (possibly in self-defense).
So here’s the thing; Eleanor herself spots the problem with this setup (mind you, she sees only that it’s unfair to her). How can a sorting system that puts only the very best in the Good Place and everyone else in the Bad Place be at all fair? Shouldn’t there be an Average Place? Like Cincinnati?
Eleanor also complains that Tahani hardly seems better than her: “She’s a condescending bench.” (You can’t swear in the Good Place.) Tahani is proof-positive of the instrumental definition of Good being used by whomever sorted the departed into the Good Place and the Bad Place; her obvious motivation for Doing Good in life was to score social points. She did good in life because it made her Better than You; this motivation for doing good soundly has been soundly rejected by every major religion (the Bible, especially, is full of condemnation for the sort who do good for praise and bragging rights).
But apparently motivation doesn’t matter. Apparently.
One last fact; Eleanor quickly learns that when she does something bad, it affects the whole district. Comically so, with rains of shrimp and garbage about which Michael can do nothing, among other things. So she can’t even be secretly bad, she’s got to learn how to be good or the situation will quickly go to hell, figuratively and possibly literally speaking.
Remember I mentioned that something about all this seemed benevolently sinister?
Point #1: Eleanor can’t be there by mistake. The system got her name, place of birth, and date (and method) of death, right. But it got everything else wrong? I don’t think so. I think she arrived with a forged history. Who forged it, and why?
Point #2: This is Michael’s first solo job, and he seems a little out of his depth. Janet knows more about what is going on than he does, and she’s not helping.
So, what is going on? I have a hypothesis, one I’m not going to share yet. Maybe if someone in the comments gets close I’ll discuss it. In any case, I look forward to watching The Good Place; I think it’s a comedy meant to completely and deliberately bend your mind and make you think. I hope it is; it shows great promise.