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Star Trek: The Next Generation

Judging Humanity with “The Good Place”

NBC’s The Good Place set up its next premise last night with “Chidi Sees The Time-Knife,” the 11th episode in its third season. Read our recap below (warning, spoilers ahead).

It’s always a good episode of The Good Place when Maya Rudolph is on, and “Chidi Sees The Time-Knife” did not disappoint. This episode, we saw Michael and crew meet with Maya’s Judge Gen in the Interdimensional Hole Of Pancakes (or IHOP to set up a slew of breakfast-franchise jokes).

There, they present Michael’s new (problematic from a timeline perspective) theory that modern life is too complicated for humans to ever earn enough points and encourage Judge Gen to go down to Earth to investigate for herself. She does and comes back with the best line: “I guess I’m black and they do not like black ladies down there.” Life on earth is complicated. We’re a mess. Something must be done.

Or must it? Judge Gen brings in Shawn from the Bad Place to present a counter-argument. His case against humanity? Limp Bizkit. Slavery. Enough said. Even Michael has to lament that we have “Nazis again somehow.” Perhaps humanity as a race is terrible, not worthy of redemption. It’s a great question and one The Good Place is poised to bring new insight to (adding upon the canon of other shows that have asked it such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, and all the other post-apocalyptic shows worth their salt).

The problem is that humanity hasn’t gotten worse over the last four hundred years or so. We’ve gotten better. We abolished slavery. We enfranchised huge portions of the world’s population. We defeated the original Nazis. Although, counterpoint: Limp Bizkit is still touring… Taken all together, the record challenges Michael’s latest theory, particularly in that it would need to apply to all of humanity for centuries and that just doesn’t make sense (think of the indigenous population of the Americas wiped out by European disease or the millions who died in slavery’s Middle Passage – surely the old point system would apply to them and some would earn their spot in heaven). No, the modern-life-is-complicated theory just doesn’t add up.

But it does set up the show for another great twist after a history of great, show-changing twists (remember when we learned Chidi and friends weren’t in the real Good Place? Or when they went down to Earth? Or when we thought we might get a plotline in the actual Good Place?). This time, we see Michael and Shawn agree to recreate the four human’s original experience with Judge Gen refereeing. The idea is to see if, removed from the interconnected boobytraps of modern-day living (Eleanor’s example: “There’s a chicken sandwich that if you eat it means you hate gay people! And it’s delicious!”), humans will show their natural, good natures. Here are the new rules of the game:

  • The people have to be the same general level of “badness” as the original four (or as Judge Gen says no “serial killers, dictators, or anyone who has managed a boy band”). And they will be selected by the Bad Place.
  • Michael gets to build the neighborhood and our four humans will help populate it along with a race of not-robot robots created by Janet with the help of her original model and ex/son/booty-call Derek.
  • The whole thing will take place in the backyard of everyone’s favorite 80’s lawyer (and somehow the only person to get CLOSE to entering the real Good Place in 400 years) Mindy St. Clair.
  • Michael and team get 100 Earth years to prove their hypothesis. With the first human in the waiting room and the clock ticking down, Michael panics, too scared to welcome his first guest, effectively spooked by the taunts of his old colleague Shawn.

And there you have it – the set up for the next season of The Good Place or perhaps the next scene. It’s hard to tell with this show. Regardless, the premise has legs and I’m excited to meet our four new humans. In “Chidi Sees The Time-Knife,” we get a glimpse at the first subject – he’s a basic, 30-something white guy played by Brandon Scott Jones (not sure why everyone who dies on The Good Place is SO young but anyways…). What strikes me about this is how none of the original four are white guys. In fact, the only white male characters I can think of have been literal demons (thank you Ted Danson, Marc Evan Jackson, and Adam Scott for your service).

What if all four of the selected humans are white guys and none of them can get past their privilege and learn something new? That would be a pretty hilarious point for the show to make although perhaps not the best TV. Also, for a show that’s clearly been intentional about diverse casting, adding four white guys seems highly unlikely.

So what will these four new humans be like? I’m expecting a new and diverse quartet that will challenge our original four’s bond. With Jason paired back up with Janet, I’m particularly interested in the four new guinea pigs giving Jameela Jamil’s Tahani something more to do than look amazing. Perhaps they’ll find someone as charming as the brilliant Simone Garnett played by Killing Eve’s Kirby Howell-Baptiste. Or as hilariously enigmatic as Rebecca Hazlewood’s Kamilah Al-Jamil. They both would be FANTASTIC choices that would help keep the original four in the foreground. With only two more episodes left, I’m just sad that we’ll probably have to wait until next season to do much more than meet the arrivals.

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A Whiff of the Good Place on “The Good Place”

NBC’s The Good Place made its midseason return last night with “The Book of Dougs,” the 10th episode in its third season. Read our recap below (warning, spoilers ahead).

“What kind of messed up place would turn away refugees?” This line came out of the mouth of Manny Jacinto’s Jason in the opening scene of last night’s The Good Place and made me guffaw (despite the fact I was watching on headphones next to my sleeping partner). Out of the mouths of babes, as they say…

Political commentary aside, this week promised us the chance to finally see the real Good Place after seasons of only imagining it. The episode delivered on just a whiff of that promise though, as our four helpless humans could smell heaven but not see, touch, or taste it. You see, they were stuck in a mailroom that while technically in the Good Place functioned more as a holding space, keeping them from their desired destination.

While there, we did learn some important stuff about heaven. It smells like your favorite place. The inhabitants are kind and trusting, easily fooled by Ted Danson’s Michael who gets most of the action this episode. They are also intensely bureaucratic, unable to take action on Michael’s assertion that something is amiss in the points systems for hundreds of years, bogged down by their ethical standards and rules of procedure. Think of it as what we used to complain about under the Obama administration.

While Michael is trying to save humanity, the humans are consumed by their love plots with Kristen Bell’s Eleanor finally consummating her relationship with William Jackson Harper’s Chidi. He gets into a mailman costume as foreplay and looks surprisingly good (hello legs!) but I have to admit, I am not invested in their romance. With Eleanor and Chidi, the premise is that they’ll each learn from and thus “save” each other but I find their intellectual connection much more interesting than their romantic one. Why waste our precious time with them setting up some boring off-screen sex?

The love triangle between Jason, D’Arcy Carden’s Janet, and Jameela Jamil’s Tahani was also in full effect with Tahani trying to smooth things over and only managing to make things worse. My favorite part of this C-plot is Janet’s journey to obtain and manage human emotions. It reminds me of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation and I am HERE for it. It’s a struggle that is so relatable (who hasn’t experienced emotions as “embarrassing” as Janet says several times during the episode) but also new (I, for one, have never worried that my emotions will come “out of my butt” as Janet did last night). Her choice of Jason as a love-object leaves something to be desired but I guess she didn’t have a lot of choices. He is slightly better than her unstable, self-made BF from season two.

The big discovery of the episode wasn’t the smell of heaven, Eleanor and Chidi getting it on, or the continued awkwardness of any of the women being interested in Jason. Rather, it was Michael’s realization that the point system is not rigged but rather the world has changed with globalization causing every action to have such large unintended consequences as to preclude anyone from earning a spot in heaven.

This idea is interesting. The difficulty of conscious consumerism is such a fraught, modern problem. How can you tell which products are ethically sourced? Are there any even? Doesn’t it seem like in the complicated, global supply chain that everything has at least some negative consequence, whether it’s the carbon footprint, worker conditions, or animal testing?

These big questions are what make The Good Place such a gem of a show. Week in and week out, it manages to raise philosophical issues without getting pedantic or making its characters into symbols. I binge-watched the show to catch up to last night’s episode and it was an intense experience, having me question my choices like never before (for example, I went to donate to a charity but then the credit card information saved on my computer wasn’t working. To fix, I needed to stand up and get my card. I didn’t donate. And what that little incident says about me, my activism, and my ethical place in the universe has stuck with me in a way it never would have without The Good Place. I will go donate now… probably).

There’s a problem with this latest foray into examining the human condition though: the timeline. A few episodes back we learned that not even Harriet Tubman made it to heaven. And repeated last night was the timeline that no human has made it to heaven in the last 521 years. That puts us roughly at 1500, long before the Industrial Revolution, which changed how our goods were created, obscuring the methods of production and leading to the modern conditions of consumerism with the unintended consequences the show outlined (of course, the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen all at once and there are still cultures that abstain from the global market – The Good Place is erasing them by lumping all of humanity together). Regardless, the timeline doesn’t fit with the industrial revolution, the historical event that ties mostly close to the example Michael gave. So what was going on 521 years ago to lead to this increase in negative, unintended consequence?

Well, 1500 was the time of genocide in the Americas as European disease disseminated indigenous populations (we’re talking tens of millions of people dying in a single generation). Was the spreading of disease what sent these plagued people to the Bad Place? That’s a hard pill to swallow. What about the millions who died in the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas? The rupture to their society was not of their making. How did their way of life change to fit into The Good Place’s model?

I’m afraid the only way the 521-year timeline makes sense is if you take a colonial, Euro-centric approach. Certainly, if you’re in the population that benefits from the slave trade or indigenous genocide, then your small choices (what cotton do you buy? How much do you love the newly introduced tomatoes and potatoes?) would indeed have unintended consequences. The problem is Europeans do not make up the entirety of humanity.

Of course, we don’t know if Michael’s realization is even correct. I’m hoping it’s not. I’d certainly hate to see a show that’s so smart on ethical questions and clearly intentional about diverse casting trip up and fail miserably based on a colonial understanding of history. Surely the show that brought us characters of color like the brilliant, Australian-based Chidi, the beautiful, globe-trotting, and rich Tahini, and the simple but sweet Jason isn’t saying what I think they’re saying. Right?

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