How ‘The Good Place’ Contemplates What It Means To Be ‘Good’
When you really think about it, it’s a little surprising that The Good Place is a comedy.
Its premise is inherently a little weightier than many network sitcoms; rather than dealing with the trials and tribulations of everyday life or the zany antics of co-workers in a variety of fields, Mike Schur’s NBC hit contemplates the meaning of life, death, and most of all what it means to be a person worthy of a positive dwelling in the afterlife.
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‘Goodness’ is one of the show’s central themes, and indeed perhaps its whole premise. After all, the four humans are trying to learn to be “good” people in order to earn their places in the kingdom in the clouds. But the way The Good Place handles the concept of morality, moral purity and “goodness” and “bad-ness” is different than many shows that have explored the concept. For a half-hour sitcom, it delves deep into some pretty heavy subjects — and invites equally deep thought about how to be a “good” person.
The Point System
Schur pokes fun at the idea of “qualifying” to get into the Good Place with the point system higher beings use to determine whether a person belongs above or below, so to speak. There isn’t necessarily a joke in the system itself — after all, it’s efficient — but there is a bit of satire in how difficult it is to qualify to be in the Good Place after one dies.
With point deductions for truly minor “offenses” such as attending a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert or having a personalized license plate, The Good Place offers commentary on what things society might deem bad enough offenses to be sent to the Bad Place. Some things, certainly, are worth that — but some things are really only good for a chuckle.
After all, many of the subtractions for points come from simple, everyday things that most people have done (the system subtracts points for farting), and thus pokes fun at the idea that some people are inherently better than others. Those who want to learn how to be better can do so, The Good Place seems to say, and no point value can put a number on that.
‘Goodness’ Is Learned, Not Earned
At least for the four humans in Michael’s neighborhood, morality is something one can study and become good at. Sure, having a sense of how and why to do good things and listening to one’s conscience probably gets one on the fast track to the Good Place, but those who move a little slower aren’t doomed to live their eternal lives below ground.
While Eleanor and her friends haven’t yet reached the pearly gates — and given how unpredictable the comedy has been, it’s entirely possible they never will — there’s little doubt that the show casts them in a better light now than they’ve ever been. They’re not flawless people, but taking ethics lessons from Chidi and making an effort to put their best foot forward, at least on Eleanor’s part, has made them more worthy of heaven than they’ve ever been.
In that way, The Good Place seems to imply that one can earn their place up above, and that being good is something everyone can learn: no matter how “bad” they might seem, a person can achieve goodness if they truly want to learn how to be selfless and kind.
Goodness Is as Goodness Does
This principle might be most clearly seen through Eleanor’s character, though a case could certainly be made for Michael. The Good Place turned the concept of ‘goodness’ on its head in the first season when it revealed all its humanitarians, selfless doctors and volunteers to be demons in disguise, and drove home the concept that being good isn’t just a stagnant title or a state of being — goodness is something one does, and eventually becomes.
Eleanor, after all, became good through acting selflessly; first through volunteering to Michael that she didn’t belong in the Good Place in the show’s first season, then by volunteering herself to go to the Bad Place in the first season finale, then by talking to Michael and helping him through his identity crisis, etc. Those were acts of true altruism that the original Eleanor Shellstrop, a self-proclaimed “Arizona dirtbag,” never would have bothered with undertaking. Because she learned how to be good, Eleanor started making better choices and helping people, and thus morphed from a self-obsessed scam artist into a genuinely good person.
Michael, too, has become a better person (demon?) as a result of spending time around the four humans he was meant to torture. Through taking ethics lessons with Chidi and the rest of the gang, Michael learns what it means to be human and takes those messages to heart. He performs one of the most selfless acts of the series in giving up his portal-pin to Eleanor in “Rhonda, Diana, Jake and Trent,” thus sacrificing himself to the Bad Place demons. At the time he did so, Michael had no assurance that Janet would break him out or that he would be able to find his way back to his friends. He was willing to spend eternity being tortured as long as his friends survived and found happiness. What a surprisingly good demon!
Being Good Isn’t Easy (But It *Is* Worth It)
Michael and Eleanor also prove another point about how The Good Place sees ‘goodness’: that being a good person takes effort. It’s not an impossible task, but it’s one that takes continual consideration and a good deal of self-restraint, especially for those inclined to ignore their consciences (as Eleanor and Michael certainly were).
Worth noting is the fact that Eleanor is the sole member of Team Cockroach to pass the Judge’s test and earn her place in heaven — the rest of her friends failed their respective challenges. This might be because Eleanor has worked the hardest out of all of her friends to be truly good and kind, and although she hasn’t always succeeded, she’s constantly put in the effort.
Comparing her progress to others in her group, like Tahani or even Chidi, it’s clear that Eleanor has done the most work to change into a person worthy of a spot in the Good Place, and clearly understood that the person she was on Earth was a person worthy of torture. The others haven’t quite reached that level of self-reflection and humility yet, though they’re probably getting there, and have nonetheless made great strides. If they can all improve and help each other, it seems likely they’ll end up in the real Good Place — and by then, they’ll truly deserve it.
The Good Place, Thursdays, 8/7c, NBC