I have a new favourite show. It’s both smart and easily digestible, and it’s refreshingly diverse and unproblematic.
It’s called The Good Place, and each episode explicitly explores moral theories in the context of wacky, upbeat sitcom hi-jinks. I never expected that such a show might exist. I AM SO EXCITE.
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in the Good Place. She has died, and Michael (the Architect of the Good Place, played by Ted Dansen) introduces her to the afterlife. She’s one of a tiny percentage of people whose good works were so astounding that for them the afterlife will be spent in a neighbourhood perfectly constructed to suit the tastes of the other Very Good People who have managed to get in. This Good Place is not the only Good Place, but it’s the one perfectly suited to them.
It’s paradise! There’s only one problem: Eleanor Shellstrop does not belong. She is not the Eleanor Shellstrop who was a human rights lawyer defending people on death row. She was, in fact, not a particularly nice person. Eleanor was not evil. She committed no serious crimes. But she was petty and selfish and you would not have wanted to be her friend.
Worse: Eleanor’s presence has thrown the Good Place out of balance. Following a neighbourhood welcome party where she got drunk, insulted the host, and ate more than her fair share of the shrimp, the Good Place is beset by chaos. Something is clearly wrong, and Eleanor knows it is her.
Worried, she turns to her Soulmate for help (everyone in the Good Place has a Soulmate), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper). Chidi was a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, and he sets about teaching Eleanor not just to behave well but to be a better person. A person who might belong in the Good Place, thus preventing further choas and potential discovery.
For discovery would mean eternal damnation: being sent to the Bad Place.
Why I like it
As long-time readers will know, I’m a philosopher. I’m a philosopher of epistemology, metaphysics, and mind, rather than ethics, but I have taught ethics. I have studied and/or taught all of the texts referenced in the show. And when I say referenced, I don’t mean subtly. I don’t mean implied or in passing. I mean Chidi literally teaches Eleanor these texts and we see the books and they are quoted from.
They hit a lot of the classics you do at A level or as a first year undergraduate: Aristotle, Kant’s Goundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Hume, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, Phillipa Foot’s Trolley Problem. As a utilitarian, I get kinda narked by the fact that they only discuss the easily dismissed act utilitarianism, rather than the more robust rule utilitarianism Mill prescribes in On Liberty, and I have no idea why they seem to think Scanlon’s contractualism is All That (it is not). I’d also like to see more female philosophers, and was glad to see they worked Phillipa Foot’s seminal text in for the season 2. But as a brief introduction to some of the key theories in ethics, it’s not bad.
And I suppose that’s the thing. They pack an awful lot of clear explanation into 20min episodes of easily digestible lighthearted situation comedy about the afterlife. That’s an achievement, and not something I have ever seen attempted anywhere else. This show has guts, and it’s paying off.
While it must be conceded that the main character, Eleanor, is white, and all the promos are off-puttingly white, focusing on the two white characters from the main cast, this is actually one of the most diverse casts I have ever seen on telly. As well as Chidi, the main cast also includes Tahani (Jameela Jamil), who is South Asian, and Jianyu/Jason (Manny Jacinto), who is East Asian.
Not to mention a supporting cast that is not only racially diverse, but diverse in body type. While it’s hard to deny that all of the main cast are all beautiful people in a reasonably standard Hollywood fashion, the people of the Good Place are by no means all super-skinny Hollywood starlets, and this is never seen as a bad thing. There is one instance where Eleanor comments on someone’s weight, and Chidi immediately calls her out for it. After all, it is implied, good people don’t judge people based on their weight.
We also see an equal number of men and women, and I’m fucking CHEERING for a female lead, jumping all over sexist dingbats who think women aren’t funny.
Moreover, we see diverse sexuality. Eleanor is openly and unabashedly bisexual – a sadly rare thing for a main character. She frequently comments on Tahani’s attractiveness, and it’s made clear that she has sexual interest, this isn’t just about jealousy or recognising another woman’s beauty. Recurring character, Gunnar, appears to have a male Soulmate, and in Season 2 Michael confirms that not all Soulmates are sexual partners – affirming that asexual and platonic love are also valid. I would like to see more in this vain. Except for a brief hint in Season 2, we never really see Eleanor and Tahani in a relationship (though that hint indicates that Tahani is also probably bi), so all the main character relationships thus far are male/female*. But overall the representation is positive.
I also like that the representation avoids stereotypes. Tahani is unambiguously and frequently described and treated as more beautiful than the white woman, Eleanor. An important fact in a world where skin bleaching is still routine as paler skin is eroneously treated as a beauty ideal. Chidi is the intellectual who cannot make decisions and abhors violence, eschewing the stereotyping of black men as thugs. And Jianyu/Jason’s character is the epitome of stereotype breaking. This is a minor spoiler, but I can’t discuss it otherwise and it’s great. The character is originally introduced to us as very stereotypical: the East Asian guy is the wise Jianyu, a monk who has taken a vow of silence. But Jianyu reveals to Eleanor in the third episode that he also doesn’t belong. He isn’t Jianyu, he’s Jason Mandoza, a stoner failed DJ from Florida. We are directly confronted with racial assumptions and have them shown to be false – a fact that Jason even gets to explicitly comment on: “Everyone here seems to think that I’m Taiwanese; I’m Filipino. That’s racist.” Particular credit goes to Manny Jacinto, who is supremely convincing in both roles, and thoroughly sells Jason as not particularly bright, but thoroughly engaging. It would be very easy to bring his lines straight into ham territory, but Jacinto conveys a genuineness in Jason that’s endearing instead.
My one minor note of uncertainty lies in Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the almost omnipotent AI who runs the Good Place, and whom Jason forms a romance with. I love the idea of human/AI romance, but I am done, done, totally done with dudes getting off with hot AIs that happen to look like hot women. This is lampshaded a little by Eleanor, who (unable to remember Janet’s name) refers to her as “Busty Alexa” and “Robot Slave Lady”. That said, Janet is always dressed like a particularly modest air stewardess, and while I’m kinda annoyed by the ridiculousness of having the avatar of an AI mainframe wear heels, they are at least small heels. Janet is never dressed in a sexually provocative way. Plus, Jason and Janet’s relationship is based solidly on the fact that both have been kind and comforting to each other when others were not.
As well as all the intellectually pleasing aspects of The Good Place, it’s just plain FUN. It’s silly, it’s a little surreal, and it’s not offensive. I was sold on this programme the moment Janet played an audio-clip of the Bad Place and admidst the screaming you hear a woman shout: “That bear has two mouths!” Because a bear with one mouth is just not scary enough. And all this mixed in with a genuinely engaging plot and an ensemble cast of deeply charismatic and funny characters.
Safely hand your brain over to The Good Place and be at peace for a while. I can’t recommend it enough. You can find The Good Place on Netflix.
*Ish. As she reminds us frequently, Janet is not a girl.