Among the list of exciting new premiere’s that the TV execs would like to introduce us to this year is one from NBC: The Good Place, starring the sloth-loving and most wonderful Kristen Bell and the hilarious, everybody-knows-his-name Ted Danson. This is how NBC describes it:
The show follows Eleanor Shellstrop, an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife and, thanks to some kind of error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place, which is definitely where she belongs. While hiding in plain sight from Michael, the wise architect of the Good Place (who doesn’t know he’s made a mistake), she’s determined to shed her old way of living and discover the awesome (or, at least, the pretty good) person within.
It is, at its core, a show exploring what makes a good person. Or a good enough person, at least. And, true to its billing, it is a comedy. For example, The Good Place (naturally) cannot countenance any swearing, and so Eleanor’s outbursts come out as “that’s so forked up!”, and “bullshirt!”, which are just so obviously not rude I couldn’t help but laugh.
I did laugh, but I was also very uneasy watching it – and I’m still processing whether I’ll go back and have Episode 3 keep me company while I scale Mt. Laundry in my living room tonight. I’m thinking probably not. I’m thinking this show may land up in the pile of “I started the series, I saw why people liked it, and I chose not to keep watching”. [For me, this virtual heap of discarded shows includes Breaking Bad (couldn’t stomach it… that bathtub!), New Girl (sex deserves more respect and it wasn’t funny any more), 24 (season 3 broke my heart. I need one redeeming character in a story), House of Cards (again, I need at least one person in the show I can root for). I choose books in lieu of any more hours with these shows.]
So what is it that rankles about The Good Place? It’s that both the premise and point of the show deal with two topics that I care very much about: questions of eternity/the afterlife, and questions on the development of character. What happens after we die? And how do our character choices affect that outcome? On both of these questions, The Good Place posits a theory that is diametrically opposed to what Jesus told us is the truth:
What happens in the afterlife?
The Good Place: If you’ve been a really good person; you get to go to the Good Place. Very few people are good enough to get in.
Jesus: There’s lots of space in my Father’s house; and I’ve gone to prepare a place for you. I’m the way, the truth and the life. Believe in me and I’ll take you there. (John 14:1-6, summarized)
How good do you need to be to get to the good afterlife place (wherever that is)?
The Good Place: Really, really, really good. As in, humanitarian-award-winner good. Better-than-average goodness isn’t good enough.
Jesus: You need to be perfect. And no-one is. But that’s why I came: to live a perfect life and then die the Bad Place’s death; and offer to take your place. I took death so that you could gain entry to the Good Place. So the answer is: no one is good enough for the Good Place. And yet anyone and everyone is welcome through me. (Matthew 5:48, 1 Peter 3:18, John 3:16)
Of course, the plot of the show is about morally-worse-than-average Eleanor, who lands up in the Good Place by accident, and whose eternal soul mate (I’m not even going to comment on this aspect of the plot) is roped into helping her reform her character there. Now the thing is, friends—unlike Firefly or StarWars or The Hunger Games or any other variety of shows where I step into the world of fantasy and suspend disbelief for a while to enjoy the story—this story is just too important, and too close to home for me to ignore the glaring issues and just “escape” mindlessly into it.
Because, despite the show’s claim in Episode 1 that “the Christians only got it about 5% right on the afterlife, as did the Hindus, and the Muslims…”, Jesus was emphatic that he was the only one who had come “from above” and could tell us authoritatively what it was like (John 3:13). And the rest of the Bible is emphatic that Jesus was the only one who experienced death and came back to tell us how to get “through it”. The Christian claim on the afterlife—founded on Jesus’ resurrection—is more than a 5% gamble. It’s what we’ve staked our entire lives on.
Amy Simpson notes*, “many believe God is so impressed with our efforts at the soup kitchen that he could never bear to dish out anything but indulgence and a wink toward “good people” like us.” The Good Place plays headlong into this belief: if you’re good enough, the Powers That Be will be impressed and you will be Eternally Rewarded. The question is: who is good enough? The answer is: only Jesus, a message The Good Place rejects outright.
“But it’s just a show, and a funny one,” – I hear you say. “Why do you have to be all kinds of Christian uptight about it?”
I suppose the answer to this has to do with bananas and tweezers. In particular, the teensy little rubber bananas they sometimes lay out at my son’s preschool, in front of a mini cardboard box with a monkey face on it and a bright yellow pair of plastic tweezers. Next to it is a similar cardboard box with tiny, blue rubber bones and a cardboard box with a doggy’s face and a pair of blue tweezers. These “toys” are laid out as a treat, and the kids can choose which of the animals they’d like to feed today. Of course my son chooses the monkey, and screws up his face in concentration as he feeds the tiny bananas into the hole-that-is-the-monkey’s-mouth and counts the bananas: one. two. three. Afterwards, they sit on the mat and hear a story about llamas and their pajama drama. Hilarious. So fun. So funny.
“Mom! I fed the monkeys!” he says, and from his perspective, he did. But from his teacher’s perspective: he practiced eye-hand coordination, fine motor skills in grasping the tweezers, and worked on numeracy skills. He was also developing social and communicative skills in negotiating with his peers which of the activities they would work on and in which order. And then they listened to stories that weren’t just entertainment about llamas, but share a script on how to handle bedtime without making excuses. How to be patient when your parents can’t respond right away. It’s social scripting, the behavioral therapists tell us. It’s not just entertainment.
He comes home from school thinking he played all day… but his parents and teachers know it wasn’t all mindless fun. He’s been learning-through-play all day. We all do. We absorb lessons through the play we engage in and the stories we expose ourselves to. We learn about life (and the afterlife) and about love and loss and relationships and reality through the play and stories of our lives. None of us are neutral to the stories we surround ourselves with, and so I’m wary of stories like The Good Place which deliver spoonfuls of untruth and mask the taste with comedy.
But then again, maybe that’s only really dangerous if we’re watching TV mindlessly. Perhaps, for some, The Good Place is exactly the show they need to be watching. Perhaps if it’s more than mindless entertainment, it might cause people to stop and ask themselves how they might fare in the Great Hereafter. If their lives were being assessed, how would they stand? Does that thought make them nervous? If they were Eleanor, and all of a sudden there was a reckoning on their choices – what would they be ashamed of? What would they wish they had oriented their lives around?
Asking those kinds of questions is, I think, a rare and critically important thing. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that one of the excellent reasons people should go to funerals is because it forces them to think about eternity:
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. (Eccl 7:2)
And so maybe there’s an argument to be made that it is better to watch The Good Place than to watch…. So You Think You Can Dance, for example. For death is the destiny of everyone, and there is a real Good Place to come, and we the living, should certainly take this to heart.
The Good Place is not a show I really want to keep watching: I think the answers it gives are wrong. But maybe, just maybe, I should be excited about it because at the very least, it’s asking some of the right questions.
- Amy Simpson, “Doing Good for All the Right Reasons”, devotional on Isaiah 64:6 in NIV Bible for Women (p 1024.)