The Theology of The Good Place
The premise of episode one is a juicy one: Eleanor Shellstrop has died. She’s ended up in The Good Place, a version of heaven that each religion “got about 5% right”. It’s a perfectly engineered afterlife designed by the angelic Michael (Ted Danson) for the very best people in the world – if you’ve lived a life of perpetual excellence and your “positive points” vastly outweigh your “negative points” then you end up in The Good Place. Eleanor, as a lawyer who got people off death row and helped out Ukrainian orphans, has made it. Only the Eleanor Shellstrop we’re following, played by Kristen Bell, is not that Eleanor Shellstrop. There’s been a mistake. She’s not supposed to be there.
From there, the rest of the show pans out in a fascinating way, wrong-footing the viewer at every turn. It’s consistently surprising, packing in a surprising number of twists and turns into each season of 13 25-minute episodes. This is not any old sitcom. And while it clearly isn’t a show that even remotely corresponds with Christian concepts of grace, new creation or the sacrifice of Jesus, it is a show that has a very distinct theology. It’s one of the things that makes the show so special.
The non-spoiler version is that Eleanor spends time with her supposed “soulmate” Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor, to try and become a better person. Each episode poses different ethical and philosophical questions as Eleanor attempts to improve from being a self-centred, deceitful and cruel person. The show posits that this is actually possible. Through learning, effort and action, Eleanor can maybe earn her way into the Good Place. Humans, the show suggests, have the capacity to improve, to better themselves, to be good.
And now I have to spoil the show, because it’s a lot more complex than that.
Spoilers begin here. Seriously, don’t read beyond this point. Stop it. If you haven’t seen Season One, we’re going to ruin it…. Now.
It turns out, they aren’t in the Good Place at all. Chidi, Eleanor and their friends Jason and Tahani have been put in a fake Good Place in order to torture one another as part of a radical experiment. Michael is not angelic, he’s the demonic mastermind behind it all. His theory is that humans are self-centred and mean enough for an eternity where they end up punishing one another. Only, he finds himself consistently foiled as the humans do actually manage to discover a capacity for goodness.
Season One, when rewatched with this knowledge in mind, is like a whole new experience, with every one of Michael’s interactions reinterpreted and all the small creative decisions making a lot more sense. There’s a reason that all of the food in the Good Place is frozen yoghurt – it’s actually designed to make everyone feel just a little bit uncomfortable and out of place. It’s an image of the Good Place, but not the real deal.
Season Two, as well, changes the game thematically, with all four of the leads grappling with the fact that they belong in the Bad Place but try ardently to be good enough for the Good Place. And, make no mistake, Eleanor is a bad person. She once made and sold multiple T-shirts that mocked her flatmate. Her main job was selling fake drugs to gullible old people. It’s interesting that although the show is sympathetic to her terrible upbringing, it doesn’t allow it as an excuse for her terrible behaviour.
It’s because the show’s key idea is that humans can improve through working hard at it, through achieving self-improvement. Everybody, it assumes, can choose to be good. In Season Two of The Good Place, it even suggests that Michael, a torturer from a version of hell, can find some redemption. It’s an alluring proposition, shaped by Michael Schur’s optimism. He told the New York Times (in this terrific article) that he’s inspired by David Foster Wallace, who wrote that “in dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” Schur is looking at the world and seeing darkness, so he’s choosing to believe that human goodness can survive or thrive even in the face of darkness.
What makes The Good Place work as a show, even if it’s ultimately unconvincing as a theological text, is that it’s rooted in actual ethics and philosophy. The whole show began after Schur sat down with an ethics professor and asked whether someone could change from being a bad person to becoming a good person based on sheer willpower alone. The show now has multiple philosophy consultants, who lend the writing a surprising weight. This is, after all, a show that features an extended fart gag and swear words are replaced by “fork” and “shirt”. You wouldn’t expect it to be one of the most intelligent shows on TV, yet here we are.
Each episode wrestles with a different moral idea, but at its heart is the theory of contractualism (a term I’ve only become aware of through watching the show and listening to the adjacent podcast, which is also delightful). This asks where morality would come from if there wasn’t a higher power to instigate it and concludes that morality comes from unspoken contracts between all humans. Every human owes every other human a debt of kindness. The Good Place acknowledges that this is complex – the reason ethics professors even exist is because being good to one another can take on many forms and there aren’t easy answers – but you’ve got to try.
At the end of the day, I don’t buy The Good Place’s message – I think the world is a pretty good defence of Calvin’s idea of Total Depravity and I remain convinced that we’re a people desperately in need of a saviour. Yet even though I don’t think we can save ourselves, The Good Place remains an inspiring and incredibly funny examination of human nature and beliefs about the afterlife. It essentially argues that humans should be kinder and better to one another, but that that takes a lot of work. So, let’s start working.