Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
This column is a mash-up of essays, thoughts, and episode synopsis, all triggered by watching season three of The Good Place, a terribly unique and clever show. Needless to say, there are spoilers. For a more traditional recap (as well as excellent behind the scenes stuff), check out the wonderful The Good Place: The Podcast, hosted by Marc Evan Jackson (otherwise known as Shawn the demon).
My immediate thought after watching “The Brainy Bunch” is that The Good Place is starting to feel a little too normal. Set in the real world, all in the same timeline, episode two lags a bit in comparison to the rest of the back catalogue. Perhaps that is because in seasons one and two Mike Schur committed to having fantastical elements present. Because it was set in the afterlife, they figured they needed to take full advantage and have flying shrimp and giraffes wandering about. For now, the four humans are simply involved in a scientific study together, in Australia, and the tension mainly revolves around their relationships and Trevor (Adam Scott), the demon sent to thwart Michael’s plans to save the humans. And it is in this tension that The Good Place finds its ethical footing and sets the viewer up for a season that promises to be more relevant than ever.To be considered good people, we need to be good to each other.
Trevor the demon is almost unbearably creepy with his polo shirts and aggressively combed hair, and his main goal is to distance Chidi from Eleanor. In season 2, all of the humans progressed and became better people precisely because of their relationships with each other. Michael, along with Janet, has been desperate to get them together back on earth in order for them to become good and earn the points necessary to get into the real Good Place when they die. And the key relationship that changes everything revolves around Eleanor asking Chidi to help her, and Chidi saying yes.
Trevor bursts into this little world, and we see Chidi become conflicted and distant, hiding himself in his academic work. Eleanor asks Chidi to go back to tutoring her in ethics but he declines; we see Eleanor withdraw into herself as she feels she isn’t getting what she wanted. This episode is incredible character-building for both Chidi and Eleanor, showing us exactly how their personalities and approaches to the world can easily be used to fracture relationships and isolate them in their own inner worlds. Chidi stays up all night worrying about his study, and Eleanor decides to drop out while eating pork rinds and reading trashy magazines in her hotel. Trevor, working as a minion of the bad place, accomplishes exactly what he came to do: break up relationships and ensure that Chidi, Eleanor, Jason, and Tahani feel like they can’t relate to one another.
If I was a good Christian, I would drop in some quotation right here to show how Trevor is similar to Wormwood, the demon in C. S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters. But instead, what I thought about most while watching Trevor wreak quiet havoc in the lives of characters I have grown to love is that it was like an inverted Touched by an Angel—one of the few shows this conservative kid was allowed to watch in the 90s. Touched by a Demon? It’s not a very nice name, but it gets to the point that while the glowy angels of Monica and Tess went around to sad and despairing people and told them they were loved by God, Trevor’s whole goal is to make people feel alone and alienated. Why is this so evil? Because people who feel alone do not feel connected to each other, and when you don’t feel connected, you don’t live your life with your neighbor in mind. You stop loving other people, both with your heart and with your actual life.
Michael, Janet, and Trevor are finally summoned to meet with the Judge (Maya Rudolph), after a hilarious scene in an American-themed restaurant in Sydney. There are too many visual gags to delight in, so make sure to check out Kristen Bell’s Instagram account so you get them all. My favorite is Judge Judy on the new Mt. Rushmore. Just as it seems all is lost, that Michael and Janet will be destroyed in the Bad Place, that the humans will be left to bumble and ultimately fail to achieve the points necessary to get into the Good Place—a simple act of kindness changes everything. A running gag with kitschy frog paraphernalia being of cosmic importance actually plays out. Due to Michael treating the Doorman with respect, he lets him and Janet escape to earth. Did Michael plan for his gift to be repaid all along? Or has he simply learned the importance of connection, of becoming invested in the well-being of others? I’m still not sure, but it’s clear that the writers of the show know where they are going with this, and it sounds like something most people of faith—from C. S. Lewis to the producers of Touched by an Angel—would recognize as truth: to be considered good people, we need to be good to each other. This starts first and foremost by being in relationship with our neighbors, and us letting such relationships transform us.
I am most excited about seeing how The Good Place continues to explore the dark side of both humanity and the forces beyond. Right now I very much relate to the idea that demons aren’t little gollum-like creatures tempting humans to do naughty things. But there are evil forces in the world that long to break the connections between people, leaving behind a trail of wreckage and brokenness. Almost like a certain serpent in a certain garden, whose first task was to get humans to distrust in a loving God and to blame each other for their sins. The beauty of this season of The Good Place is that the central message so far seems to be that connecting to each other is the way we resist evil in the world.
Favorite Joke: Brexit, The Greatest Showman’s box office success, and the Jacksonville Jaguars being good now are all ripple effects due to Michael’s meddling.
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