THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE TV SERIES “THE GOOD PLACE”.
Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, clicking, clicking, clicking. I was trying to find something to watch while I filled out the millionth job application, dual monitors are great, and stumbled upon a show called “The Good Place”. The premise was pretty simple, in the after life there is a “Good Place” and a “Bad Place”, and a woman named Eleanor Shellstrop accidentally winds up in the Good Place instead of the Bad Place. I was pretty much instantly hooked. The writing was clever, the acting was great(especially Ted Danson), and despite almost immediately going “ah, they’re all in the Bad Place” I remained pretty invested in the show. The twist that I felt was coming, came, and the entire afterlife for the four main characters was reset to square one so the torture could continue as planned.
Yet, this is where the horror of the show really began to set in for me. Eleanor and the other three humans locked in eternal damnation together were locked in eternal damnation together. Why? As the show progresses we find out a few things about why each person is there. Eleanor was a piece of shit (her words), Chidi mentally tortured (by accident) those he loved through his indecisiveness, Tahani did a ton of charity work but did it for the wrong reasons, and Jason was just. . .incredibly stupid. Yet there is a clear sense of injustice at play here for the four.
We find out that a lot of Eleanor’s shitty behavior was from her even shittier parents. She did little to correct her character flaws but had no influence or incentive in her life which would lead her to want to correct those flaws. Tahani did her charity work out of a desperate desire for approval from her parents and peers and yet she winds up damned since her motives weren’t pure enough. Chidi, on the other hand winds up in the Bad Place because of his indecision which was motivated by a deep concern for other people. And Jason? Jason was just from Florida and incredibly dumb. There is no real justice in being sent to the “Bad Place”. Sure, Eleanor’s parents probably wound up in their version of the “Bad Place” as well but that isn’t really justice. The wrongs committed against Eleanor were not remedied or righted by their eternal torture just as the wrongs Eleanor committed are not righted by her eternal torture. Much like the American prison system, these supernatural beings punish wrongs for the sake of punishing wrongs. Unlike the prison system there is no stated motive of “this will return the person to being a productive member of society”. No, they just get tortured. Much to the delight of those torturing them.
Yet, it isn’t really much better for Michael and the rest of the demons. Their jobs are to inflict misery. In fact several demons state that their goal is to devise new ways to make human existence miserable, and to be fair they seem to really enjoy doing the torturing. However, the demons are fated to suffer as well. Based on what we can see in the show it seems that the demons have some sort of promotional hierarchy with some demons helping out on other’s projects until they apprentice and eventually become architects themselves. Architects who do a very poor job in their designs or who can’t come up with new torture methods are “retired”. Retirement for the demons isn’t pleasant, their essence is scattered into billions of pieces and then each piece is placed on the surface of a sun so that the being feels the simultaneous pain of billions and billions of suns searing their essence (somehow. . .we aren’t really told if it is the heat or the light or what). So even the demons are faced with the ever present threat of eternal torture and you really could say the inevitability of it. After all, everyone hits a slump eventually.
The most horrifying part of all this is that in the show’s universe most people end up going to the Bad Place. Michael states that the “Good Place” only accepts the best of the best; that maybe 1 in a million people end up in the “Good Place” and that there are billions and billions of people in the “Bad Place”. In fact, the only person we’ve met so far that didn’t wind up in the Bad Place was a business woman named Mindy St. Claire who was AWFUL but started up a charitable organization right before she died that helped people. So, the only person we’ve seen not in the Bad Place basically bought her way out (though unbeknownst to her) and she is basically a rich Eleanor. Keeping this in mind, the show becomes as much a horror series as it does a sitcom. Most beings are born to suffer in the universe of “The Good Place”. Most humans are going to go to the Bad Place simply because the Good Place only accepts the best of the best. Meaning, that even if all of humanity started doing only good deeds, feeding all the starving and homeless; didn’t start wars; didn’t cut each other off in traffic; and were just great people it still would not translate into more people getting into the Good Place. Everyone is being ranked, rank matters, therefore there is no way to get a higher percentage of people into eternal bliss. As previously stated, the demons have the threat of “retirement” constantly hanging over their heads and we don’t even know what the hell is happening in the Good Place yet or how their Architects get treated. It is an ontological horror show where almost every sentient being has intense, eternal torment waiting for them at the end of the road.
Knowing this, how could any being in the Good Place actually be happy knowing the injustices taking place in the Bad Place and the abject unfairness of it all? Based on some of Michael’s offhanded comments, by simply not selecting individuals who are capable of or inclined towards thinking in such a fashion. After all, he says multiple times that there are no philosophers in the Good Place. At first this may seem like a simple one-off joke but thank about it; who are going to be the people that complain about paradise on account of injustice? The people who are constantly thinking about things like justice, or ethics, or the Good. You then run the risk of them spreading their ideas to the rest of the neighborhood and before you know it you have a full scale liberation effort going on assisted by Good Janet and her ability to do pretty much whatever. Better to just stick them in the Bad Place where they can’t cause any trouble. There are no philosophers in the Good Place simply because there cannot be any philosophers in the Good Place. They are threat to the order that these supernatural beings have arranged for themselves. A philosopher could be number one when they died but that fella has to be 86ed lest they prove to be a threat.
Here is the thing though, I think Schur and his team of writers are fully cognizant of the stuff I’ve discussed here. If not oh well. “The Good Place” is a perfect example of the inherent injustice in absolutist visions of the afterlife. A lot of religions common in the West espouse theological stances in which only adherents of that religion even have a shot at making it to eternal bliss (don’t not all Christians me, I know about the growing influence that St. Origen is having on Mainline Progressives). “The Good Place” turns this on its head by stripping religion out of it completely and having this points based ranking system, which is inherently unjust. Through this it serves as a critique of such absolutist theological stances and will hopefully open people up to more nuanced, compassionate, and inclusive visions of both this life and the next.
All this being said, I’m eager to see where the series goes. It is my favorite show on television right now.