October 23, 2018

The Ethical Message of “The Good Place”

“The Good Place is a show set in a special new corner of hell. The person in charge, an insubordinate demon named Michael (Ted Danson), is undergoing a crisis: For thousands of years, he was a loyal employee of the inferno, known in the show as “The Bad Place.” He specialized in torturing sinners the old-fashioned way—stuffing hot dogs into their orifices, melting down their eyeballs, tearing off their fingernails. Then, somewhere along the way, he got bored.

He wanted to disrupt the damnation business, to innovate. He convinced his boss, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), to give him one crack at a bold experiment. What if he took four sinners headed for punishment, and dropped them instead into a squeaky clean, candy-colored small town, telling them it was heaven (aka The Good Place)? To make it more interesting, the four people would be marginal moral cases—not murderers, just narcissists and jerks whose specific flaws would grate on one another to the point that living in the same neighborhood for all time would feel like torture. Michael believes that if this pilot program goes well, he will have created an entirely new model for eternal, self-sustaining suffering.

For the first season, neither the four test subjects nor the audience knows about this scheme. When the show opens, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself sitting on a sofa in a waiting room, across from a wall sign that reads “Welcome! Everything Is Fine.” Michael calls her into his office, presents himself as a kind of friendly guardian angel, and tells her not to fear: She has reached the promised land, where nobody suffers and the supply of frozen yogurt is limitless. This news confuses her. She is not shocked to find that she is dead. But she is shocked to have landed in The Good Place.”

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