I’m going to miss The Good Place. I loved escaping to a world where people are basically good, cruelty is bad, and fairness and justice are worthwhile pursuits. It seems like a pretty standard baseline but in Trump’s America, it’s not.
The Good Place premiered in September 2016, before the last presidential election when so many of us (myself included) thought a woman would be president. I didn’t watch the show then mostly because I didn’t think I’d need it. But now that it’s ending, I’m grateful I had it these last four years, as a reminder of the simple importance of goodness.
Take for example the value judgments around helping others. Does being a good Samaritan make you a sucker or a good person? In Trump’s America-first doctrine, it means you’re a dupe. Lesson one: everyone’s out for themselves. Don’t even think about taking a risk for the sake of others. Not only will you get nothing in return, but you’re also bound to be taken advantage of. Think of aid for Ukraine or even somewhere within the U.S. that does vote (or vote Republican) like Puerto Rico. Or the Paris Climate Accord. These were “bad deals” because the United States didn’t get “anything.” It doesn’t matter if they led to an overall good or not.
Eleanor starts off The Good Place with a similar attitude — she’s out for herself and herself only — something the audience is meant to understand as wrong. She doesn’t belong in the good place and has to change her ways. Soon she’s learning philosophy from Chidi and bringing Jason and Tahani into her ethics study group. Over the last four seasons, this clique has grown to include Michael and Janet as they work to redeem humanity and themselves. This group of unlikely heroes not only improve themselves, they change the entire system by which we’re judged, even fixing heaven itself. And they’re able to do it because they share some basic beliefs — like torture is bad.
In devising the new system, the group studies Judith Shklar’s “Putting Cruelty First,” which argues that cruelty is “society’s primary flaw.” When Eleanor declares, “we need to come up with a system that will result in the least amount of cruelty and suffering to those who don’t deserve it,” Chidi kisses her (on roller skates!). It’s a sweet scene and an ethical theory that’s easy to get behind. People shouldn’t suffer for no reason, right? Living an ordinary life shouldn’t result in an eternity of torture. And yet, here on Earth, that’s the way things work. We’re still separating families at the border. We’ve executed a foreign leader. Trump’s impeachment defense is basically to convince America that corruption is normal.
It’s like Trump’s a demon from the bad place, a devil in a skinsuit with a bad haircut. But instead of rallying against him, we’ve made him President. Now, he didn’t win the popular vote in 2016. But our system is built in such a way that the will of the people doesn’t matter. We’ve got the Electoral College, gerrymandered districts, and voter suppression — all to protect rural white voters’ preferences above all others.
What we need now is the courage to change the system. Upon realizing that no person has qualified for the good place in 500 years, Michael, Janet, and the four humans set out to figure out what’s happening and change it. There are lots of obstacles and, this being TV, all of humanity almost gets erased. But they don’t give up, they don’t sit by and let the injustice stand. They travel to hell and back. They sacrifice love and find it again. They stretch themselves, pushing past discomfort and doubt to achieve something more. It’s a lesson for all of us. And it’s one I’ll miss when The Good Placeconcludes its fourth and final season.
It turns out four years is enough to tell this story. Let our suffering not be eternal.