When Changing Nothing Changes Everything by Laurie Polich Short, Free for CAPC Members
In her book When Changing Nothing Changes Everything, Laurie Polich Short gives us insight into living life fully, whatever our circumstances.
***The following contains spoilers for the season two finale of The Good Place.***
I never expected to be enthralled by a comedy about moral philosophy, but apparently I’m not the only one. The season two finale of The Good Place aired last night, leaving millions of Americans in sitcom purgatory as we wait for new episodes this fall. The brainchild of Mike Schur (creator of Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), The Good Place is a show all about what happens after you die–did you do enough good to enter into the Good Place? Or do you go to the Bad Place?
For an evangelical Christian, plunging into the world(s) created by Schur in The Good Place has been an exercise in both laughing along with and cringing at some of the biggest questions people can ask themselves. Schur came up with the idea for the show while driving around LA and noticing all the annoying things people do, such as cutting off others in traffic or throwing trash on the ground, and he started assigning them points. Good points would get you into heaven, he reckoned, and bad points would send you to, well, you-know-where.Who is our neighbor, and what do we owe them?
Season one of The Good Place centered around the character of Eleanor (Kristen Bell), a selfish and scrappy woman who ends up in the Good Place–in this case a small neighborhood filled with customized homes and frozen-yogurt shops–by accident. She meets Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an ethics-obsessed professor, Tahani (Jameela Jamill), a beautiful socialite philanthropist, and Jian-Yu/Jason (Manny Jacinto), a DJ from Florida who also somehow got placed in the wrong afterlife. The twist at the end of season one will go down in history as one of the greats, as Eleanor tells Michael (Ted Danson), the architect/head angel of their specific neighborhood, that she has finally figured it out–they’ve been in the Bad Place all along.
Season two picks up here. We, the viewers, know that Michael is really a demon and the Good Place we’ve known is really a diabolical and creative new way to torture the four humans central to the show. Chidi, who spent season one teaching Eleanor about ethics, eventually starts to work on Michael, who slowly comes to the place where he cares for and commits to help the four humans make their way to the real Good Place, even though it is an incredibly long shot and breaks all the rules of the afterlife.
While it is a truly funny show–full of visual gags (puns galore!) and quirky characters–The Good Place also takes ethics quite seriously. And while it’s veiled in humor, this exploration of moral philosophy raises serious questions for anyone engaged with the central premise–especially those from evangelical backgrounds.
Mike Schur came up with the idea of the show as a lark, but large swaths of Americans do believe in an afterlife, which has direct correlations to how one acts in this world. While specific references to religion are sparse, instead focusing on general ethics/morality, it still manages to make pointed commentaries on the absurdity and horror of humanity’s attempts to grapple with what happens after we die.
Season two especially hones in on this point. Eleanor, the human, and Michael, the demon, both progress in learning how to live and care for other people–becoming team players and identifying how their actions impact those around them. Since going to the Fake Good Place, Eleanor has actually become a better person–as have the rest of her friends. The show tells us that humans can grow and mature, are capable of change, and thus should not be condemned to a life of eternal torture and punishment.
The season two finale starts with Michael appealing to the Judge (Maya Rudolph, in gloriously fine form), who has just sentenced the four humans to the Bad Place for reals. Michael says: “The premise of our system is that a person’s score is final–but these four humans got better, after they died. That’s not supposed to be possible.” He has seen them grow and become better. To the Judge he says that the entire system could be incredibly flawed–and as such, they need to conduct an experiment to see whether or not they have been wrong.
This finale is concerned with what the Judge and Michael refer to as moral just deserts–the idea that if you act with virtue, you deserve a reward. But does this mean you are actually a good person, since you expect a reward at the end? The creators of The Good Place, via their characters, would say no. Regardless if there is a Good Place or a Bad Place or any place at all, one has a moral obligation to forge connections with other humans and then be good to those people–to live as if we are not alone. Or as Michael (standing behind a bar and causally wiping out glasses, in a lovely nod to Cheers) says: “The real question, Eleanor, is what it is we owe to each other.”
Throughout the show, various ethical conundrums have been raised. One entire episode is devoted to the famous “Trolley Problem” (for a refresher, watch this). How does one make decisions about how to go about being a part of the world–do you do that which entails the least amount of suffering (utilitarianism), or do you do choose not to play an active part in deciding the fate/suffering of others? It’s an ethical problem designed to make your brain (and possibly stomach) hurt, an exercise in thinking through how we relate to each other as neighbors and what responsibility we take toward intervening in a broken world. Near the end of season two, an alternate (and self-sacrificial) solution to the Trolley Problem is acted out by Michael, echoing themes of sermon illustrations I have heard often in churches to describe Christ’s work on the cross via the lens of penal substitutionary atonement.
But underneath all the problems, dilemmas, and setbacks, the humans–and Eleanor in particular–are hellbent (pun intended) on surviving and clawing their way into heaven. Even though Michael assures her that there is very little chance of getting into the actual Good Place, she replies, “Of course we are getting in. We’re refugees. What kind of messed-up place doesn’t let in refugees?” This is both poignant political commentary and a subtle questioning of religious certainty. Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason all suffered on earth in various ways and suffered continuously in the fake Good Place. Through their suffering, as well as their small steps toward caring for each other, the viewer comes to be completely on their side. By the end of season two, we are desperate for redemption and desperate for a happy ending that we know won’t be coming any time soon.Underneath the bright visuals and a gaggle of talented comedic character actors, a fundamental dread grounds this show.
Questions of ethics and mortality as plot devices for a half-hour network comedy are new, and unexpectedly thrilling, to watch. Underneath the bright visuals and a gaggle of talented comedic character actors, a fundamental dread grounds this show. For all the jokes made about the Bad Place (and the various kinds of torture that happen therein), the truth is that some have never had to come face-to-face with the reality of how we as humankind have failed each other as neighbors–both in our actions, and possibly our ethical and theological frameworks. Speaking prophetic judgments and condemning others to hell has been a hallmark of evangelical Christianity in the United States, and it is worth spending some time seriously considering how this framework relates to what we find in The Good Place. Does praying a Sinner’s Prayer give us all the points we need for the afterlife? Is God an impersonal Judge tied to arbitrary rules? Do humans deserve to be tortured and punished eternally for what they did and didn’t do in their finite life on earth? Is the Good Place only for a select few, the good news only available to a small minority? And what do you do with the reality that you might make it in while the people you love don’t?
The Good Place doesn’t claim to answer any of these questions. But it sure does enjoy bringing them up. The show both idolizes and pities the human experience, in ways that are surprising and poignant. The running gag about frozen yogurt being a symbol of torture (and a hallmark of the Bad Place) continues to make me laugh. Froyo is something everyone knows is supposed to be good, but actually tastes like cold, sour garbage. But because of the communal and celebratory aspects of it, all four humans go along with it, unwilling to be the first one to say how much they would actually prefer something else.
This is what you do when you love other people, when your life is bound up in theirs, when you take the entirety of the gospel seriously, and when you sum it up just as Christ himself did: to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. The Good Place is a show that is asking us to laugh and think and question our own lives in light of how they affect others. None of us has any real certainty over what happens when we die, but followers of Christ do have hope in a new city and a new world. But that eschatology is distinctly connected to neighbor-love in the here and now. Any chances we have of seeing the slightest glimmers of the good place are dependent on how much we grasp our responsibility to love each other, especially those we would rather not. In this respect, The Good Place is the most uniquely biblical show currently on television. It already knows the answer to the question we humans love to ask each other: everyone in the world is our neighbor, and we owe them everything.
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