NBC’s The Good Place Embraces the Golden Rule, Becoming a TV Palate Cleanser in the Age of Trump

TV Features The Good Place
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NBC’s The Good Place Embraces the Golden Rule, Becoming a TV Palate Cleanser in the Age of Trump

As 2017 begins and a Trump presidency looms, thousands prepare to gather in Washington to protest. Donations to organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Planned Parenthood have spiked in response to the shocking (or perhaps not-so-shocking) results of the November election. These are trying times, and no one should seek to diminish them. But after a long day’s work of calling your representatives and completing your daily activism task for the Injustice Boycott, consider allowing yourself a TV palate cleanser with a message of acceptance. We’re all going to need one.

The Good Place, which returns to NBC tonight at 8:30 p.m., follows Eleanor (Kristen Bell), a terrible person who is mistakenly sent to an afterlife built strictly for good people. It’s a joke-dense, candy-colored spectacle that evokes the memory of Pushing Daisies (RIP, never forget). It has the showrunner who brought us Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And it holds a place in the historically coveted NBC Thursday night lineup.

It also happens to be a philosophy-focused show casually guiding viewers to lead a life of religious tolerance and acceptance—a weighty task for any 30-minute comedy, much less one featuring giant CGI shrimp in its pilot.

To be fair, the task is a (mostly) unintended one. In a September interview with The Hollywood Reporter, showrunner Mike Schur discussed taking on the possibly unenviable prospect of creating a series with such heavy emphasis on religion. After doing a bunch of research, Schur decided to circumvent religion, for the most part—it was simpler, he decided, to eschew traditional religious beliefs and opt for an afterlife in which every major sect was a little bit right, but mostly wrong.

As underrepresented populations in America grapple with the potential consequences of the Trump administration, The Good Place offers the positive attitude toward diversity and tolerance we need right now. And it’s a gift lovingly bestowed upon us regardless of our current rankings in the “good person” points tally.

The series could have easily gone the route of poking fun at organized religion, in the vein of shows like South Park and even, at times, Transparent. Instead, it does a kindness by embracing those of all beliefs. The white Christian male isn’t the default archetype on this show: For the first several episodes, Ted Danson’s Michael is the only white dude with a regular role. That is, before the arrival of Trevor (Adam Scott) from “the bad place.” Trevor’s dialogue embodies a blunt, Trump-like sexism, which feels fitting—for example, upon meeting Eleanor, he calls her “sweetheart” and suggests that she smile more.

The Good Place makes a point of not building a case for one religion’s beliefs over any others in its opening scene. “Every religion guessed about five percent,” Michael explains to Eleanor in the pilot episode. Instead, a positive afterlife experience comes down to being a good person, regardless of religion, race, or gender.

As a result, those who make it to the Good Place convey a broader range of life experience than we are used to seeing in primetime. Major characters include Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a Nigerian who made learning and teaching ethics his life’s work; Tahani (Jamela Jamil), a Pakistani-born philanthropist; and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), a (supposed) Buddhist monk from Taiwan. It’s an eclectic group, to be sure, but in the Good Place, everyone speaks the same language.

In effect, The Good Place embraces religious diversity by refusing to pick a winner: You don’t get to avoid eternal damnation in the Bad Place because you gambled on the “right” religion. There’s some real nondenominational comfort in the idea that your presence in Heaven might be data driven, based on the points you accrued for every good thing you did in your life. (Call it karma if you want, but faith can just as easily be found in numbers.) A God figure, or indeed any kind of higher being, isn’t even mentioned, beyond an offhand joke. Even calm, soothing Michael is not a deity—he’s just an architect.

One article of faith the series shares with certain major religions is absence of a Middle Place for middle people. The universe of The Good Place is binary, in that sense: You were either a good person on Earth, or you were bad, and even those among the good had to be in the top percentage of all humanity. This premise lends itself to high-stakes storytelling, because it means that Eleanor has no purgatory to default to if she’s kicked out of the Good Place for not deserving to be there.

“This system sucks,” she declares in the pilot. “What, one in a million gets to live in paradise and everyone else gets tortured for eternity? I wasn’t freaking Gandhi, but I was okay! I was a medium person. I should get to spend eternity in a medium place. Like Cincinnati.”

This clear-cut division also leads to some pretty solid jokes about famous people who have and haven’t made it to the Good Place. Who’s in the Bad Place, for example? “Every president except Lincoln,” Michael says, and basically every artist, ever. At least we’d be in good company there.

Per Schur’s vision, philosophy plays a significant role in the series. In order for Eleanor to try to covertly earn her spot in the Good Place, she seeks out Chidi, a philosophy professor during his time on Earth, to teach her how to be a good person. He offers lessons from Aristotle and Plato, references utilitarianism, and teaches her other concepts from Philosophy 101. As Chidi is running down the history of the great Greek philosophers, an annoyed Eleanor asks, “Who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?” Chidi replies, “Plato.” The fact that the series makes such teachings funny while maintaining accuracy is a testament to the sharp wits in the writers’ room.

Speaking of which, the range of voices heard on the series is surely thanks, at least in part, to the vast talents and varied perspectives of writers Alan Yang, Demi Adejuyigbe, Aisha Muharrar and others. I don’t pretend to know the religious backgrounds of the show’s creatives, but I do suspect it benefits from bringing together extremely funny people from different backgrounds. Their combined efforts have made for a richer, more interesting, and ultimately more thoughtful TV show—and one that might well serve as an antidote to Trump’s rhetoric.

At a moment in which the incoming president has floated the idea of a Muslim registry it seems we’re overdue for a reminder of the golden rule. After a tough election cycle, we’re not exactly doing unto others as we’d have them do unto us, and we haven’t been for a while now. Unlike us, The Good Place welcomes those of all beliefs and backgrounds, provided they weren’t an asshole—and went out of their way to better the lives of others.

On its surface, The Good Place is a fish-out-of-water story in which a bad person mistakenly winds up in an afterlife designed for good people. Deep down, though, it’s a show that hints to us that the scriptures and psalms of organized religion may matter far less than the outputs of good intentions and deeds.

The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

Meryl Williams is an Ohio writer who loves Rilo Kiley and roller derby. Sign up for her awesome TinyLetter.