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Television
by Tim Pratt

A BETTER PLACE


The Good Place, an afterlife comedy by Michael Schur (creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), has completed two thirteen-episode seasons since 2016, and it's one of the smartest and funniest shows on television—and certainly the best comedy ever about ethics and moral philosophy. It's a show driven by twists and reveals, and impossible to discuss without giving some surprises away, so if you'd rather come to the experience unspoiled, avert your eyes.

Kristen Bell, who was snarky charm personified on Veronica Mars, stars here as Eleanor Shellstrop. The series begins with Eleanor opening her eyes to a wall emblazoned with the words "Welcome! Everything Is Fine." A moment later Ted Danson, all white-haired affability as the sort-of-angel Michael, invites her into his office, where he tells her she died (in an accident involving a dropped bottle of Lonely Girl-brand margarita mix and a runaway line of shopping carts). When you die, you either go to a bad place, or a good place: She's in the Good Place.

The Good Place isn't quite any heaven from mythology. Michael explains, "Hindus are a little bit right. Muslims a little bit. Jews, Christians, Buddhists. Every religion guessed about five percent." One of the best jokes in Episode One concerns Doug Forcett, "a stoner kid who lived in Calgary in the 1970s," who tripped on mushrooms and intuited the nature of the afterlife with ninety-two percent accuracy; his portrait is on the wall in Michael's office, like the icon of a saint.

Eleanor gets a tour, and learns the Good Place is divided into "neighborhoods," each inhabited by 322 people perfectly selected to live in harmonious bliss, with every detail curated, down to the last blade of glass and ladybug. Eleanor's neighborhood has a quaint downtown with lots of frozen yogurt places; Michael comments that there's "something so human about taking something great, and ruining it a little, so you can have more of it." The neighborhood is a nice place, where the inhabitants can't even curse, which leads to Eleanor shouting things like "what the fork," "that's bullshirt," and "what an ash-hole."

Eleanor joins the other recently deceased for an outdoor orientation, where Michael explains the nature of the universe's moral arithmetic. Every action you take in life is assigned a positive or negative point value ("ate vegan: +389.17," "ruined opera with boorish behavior: -90.90"), and if you're among the top rated, you go to the Good Place. Everyone else spends eternity in the Bad Place. (Michael brushes that part aside: "What happens to everyone else? Don't worry about it.") The standards to get into the Good Place are high: "Florence Nightingale? She was close, but she didn't quite make it." But Eleanor was a crusading lawyer who got innocent people off death row and went on humanitarian missions to the Ukraine, so she made the cut.

Everyone in the neighborhood is paired up with their ideal soul mate, for an eternity of romantic bliss. Eleanor's is Senegalese professor of ethics and moral philosophy Chidi Anagonye (played with spot-on anxious earnestness by William Jackson Harper). After extracting a promise that Chidi will always stand by her and never do anything to harm her, Eleanor confesses: There's been a mistake.

Eleanor isn't a heroic humanitarian. She's a dirtbag who sold fake medicine to old people over the phone for a living and never thought of anyone but herself. She's not that bad—she's not a murderer or an arsonist—but she's definitely not up to the caliber of the other denizens, who donated kidneys to strangers, died digging up land mines, and fought for women's rights in North Korea. She's outraged by the system: One in a million people get to go to heaven, and everyone else is tormented for eternity? Eleanor says she wasn't perfect, but she was a medium person, and should get to live in a medium place—she'd settle for the afterlife equivalent of Cincinnati.

The other major characters are Eleanor's neighbors, name-dropping chatterbox child of privilege Tahani Al-Jamil (who still has a posh British accent, even in a place where all languages are magically translated) and her soul mate Jianyu Li, a Buddhist monk who never speaks because he's maintaining his vow of silence in the afterlife. There's also Janet (a standout role played with perky weirdness by D'Arcy Carden), the neighborhood's artificial "informational assistant," who appears when you call her name, has the answers to everything, and can conjure whatever the residents want—Eleanor calls her a "Magical slave robot."

Then there's Michael. He's the architect, but not the Architect; he didn't make the universe, only this neighborhood, and he sheepishly reveals at the opening night cocktail party that it's his first project after two hundred years of apprenticeship. Eleanor, feeling out-of-place, is a terrible boor at the party: She gets drunk, steals all the shrimp, and insults people behind their backs, with Chidi doing his best to keep her under control.

The next day, in a wacky CGI-filled montage, the neighborhood descends into chaos: There are giant shrimp flying through the sky, enormous frogs and ladybugs wreaking havoc, fashion disasters, and general devastation… with details related to Eleanor's rants and bitterness the night before. She realizes her very presence is poisonous to the Good Place.

Eleanor hits on an ingenious solution. She doesn't belong in the Good Place because she's not a good person, but what if she could grow and change, and become worthy of paradise? She asks Chidi to teach her how to be good—he was, after all, a professor of ethics. After much internal debate, Chidi agrees. (His defining character trait is his indecisiveness; he never even managed to name his dog, who "responds to long pauses"). Eleanor and Chidi embark on a course of study through ancient and modern philosophy, covering Kant's Categorical Imperative, Hume's bundle theory of the self, John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, Scanlon's Contractualism, Nietzche's eternal recurrence, and other concepts, all presented deftly and with great humor. ("Who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?" Eleanor demands. Chidi points at the blackboard and says, "Plato!") My ten-year-old son has opinions about Kant because of this show, which is pretty impressive.

The season proceeds as Eleanor tries to be a better person, gives in to her selfish impulses, consequently disrupts the balance of the neighborhood and causes chaos (rains of garbage, bottomless sinkholes), and then tries harder to be good. Flashbacks give us glimpses of her life, revealing what a sleaze she was and offering insight into how she got that way (she didn't exactly have positive role models). That formula could have sustained a dozen episodes, but this show does so much more, with enough twists and revelations to fuel three seasons packed into one.

One of the best early twists comes when silent, wise Jianyu reveals to Eleanor that he's not really a Buddhist Monk, but a "professional amateur DJ" from Jacksonville, Florida, named Jason Mendoza, who suffocated while hiding inside a safe in a botched robbery attempt. Chidi tries to teach Jason to be good, too, but it's hard, because Jason is deeply stupid, and does whatever seems like a good idea at the time, with no comprehension of the consequences, which in life led to things like throwing molotov cocktails at speedboats and slashing the tires of a rival sixty-person dance troupe. In the afterlife, Jason is always in danger of giving himself away and alerting Michael that there are interlopers in his neighborhood.

The best part of the show is that Eleanor actually grows and changes, which leads to big decisions—halfway through season one she realizes the strain of her lie is too hard for Chidi, and devastating for Michael, who blames himself for the disruptions in the neighborhood.

Eleanor publicly confesses that she doesn't belong there, and that's when the show really began to impress me, because I realized it wasn't just going to milk the initial setup for comedic value until it ran dry, but was really going to engage with its premises in a meaningful way.

Eleanor's confession sets a whole range of hilarity in motion: A delegation of supernatural scumbags arrive from the Bad Place to take Eleanor away, complete with a gum-popping "Bad Janet"; we meet the real Eleanor Shellstrop, who's suffered in our protagonist Fake Eleanor's place, and is unbelievably saintly; Chidi ends up in a love quadrangle, and can't decide if he belongs with Real Eleanor, Fake Eleanor, or Tahani; a rebooted Janet ends up bonding with and falling in love with the moronic Jason; an escape attempt leads to the discovery of an actual "Medium Place" where lawyer and cocaine enthusiast Mindy St. Claire lives in masturbatory tedium; there's an all-powerful judge who comes to determine whether Fake Eleanor is worthy of being in the Good Place after all, who vanishes into a cocoon whenever testimony strays from cold logic into emotion; and then….

Well. It's impossible to discuss season two at all without mentioning the giant reveal that comes at the end of season one. Spoilers here:

After the latest in a series of ridiculous reversals that make everyone miserable, Eleanor realizes the truth: This isn't the Good Place at all. They're in the Bad Place, and all the hijinks and setbacks they've experienced are elaborate torments carefully curated to prey on their weaknesses. The only real humans are Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason. Eleanor and Jason obviously belong in the Bad Place; Chidi is there because his chronic indecisiveness made everyone around him miserable; and despite all her philanthropic works, Tahani was driven by vanity and jealousy for her more talented and successful sister. Michael is basically a demon (though as he says in season two, calling him that is "kind of racist"), and his evil laughter in the season one finale when his true nature is revealed is marvelous. The writers set up the twist well, but it's not too obvious—I began to suspect late in the first season, though after the finale many people flocked to the internet to declare they'd seen the twist coming from the first episode. (As Eleanor would say, "Good job, nerds.")

For millions of years, the rulers of the Bad Place have tortured people with tried-and-true methods like fire, two-headed bears, butthole spiders, and penis flatteners. Michael's idea to have humans torture each other is a bold innovation, and his bosses offer him one more chance to get it right, lest he be tortured for eternity himself. Michael reboots the humans, erasing their memories and changing the initial conditions to optimize their misery. In season two the show doesn't waste a lot of time on Eleanor gradually discovering the truth again—instead we get a montage of multiple reboot efforts, with big changes (everyone's in monk's robes!) and small ones (there are clam chowder restaurants instead of froyo parlors!), as Eleanor (and once Jason) keep figuring out the truth.

After over 800 attempts, Michael gives up. His superiors think he's still on iteration two, and if they learn the truth, he's doomed forever, so he joins the humans ("Team Cockroach") and Chidi starts trying to teach him to be good, too, with the hope that they'll all escape to the Good Place. The second season is just as satisfying as the first—my favorite episode, "Trolley Problem," forces indecisive Chidi to literally pull a lever and run someone over with a trolley in order to save five people on an adjacent track; Michael assures him that the victim, though a construct, is aware and capable of feeling pain. We get to see a lot more of the supernatural world, there's a great role for Maya Rudolph as the cheerful "Eternal Judge," and the show keeps upping the stakes and delivering twists throughout. The finale is dazzling, and sets the stage for a third season, on its way this fall. The Good Place makes our world a better one.

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