Whenever someone recommends a show or movie about Heaven, I tend to groan. After all, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered into the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him,” (1 Cor. 2:9). But, in a break from tradition and after much coaxing, I reluctantly agreed to watch The Good Place.
The show centers on the stories of four people, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto) following their respective deaths. After dying, they find themselves in a neighborhood of the Good Place designed by architect Michael (Ted Danson).
Something, however, is very wrong. Throughout her life, Eleanor has cared for no one but herself. After being admitted, every character meets their supposed “soulmate.” For Eleanor, it is Chidi, a bookish ethics professor. It is immediately apparent that the two are anything but soulmates. Furthermore, any time Eleanor does something destructive, it affects the whole neighborhood, causing all sorts of troubles, including trash showers and a huge sinkhole. Following these, Eleanor enlists Chidi’s help to teach her ethics, so that she can truly belong in her new environment. Realizing that this means losing his opportunity to find love even in the afterlife, Chidi begrudgingly agrees to help and to keep silent about Eleanor’s secret.
On the other hand, Tahani seems to be all that a resident of the Good Place should be. She spent her days championing charitable causes, raising $60 billion during her life. Her soulmate is a Buddhist monk, Jianyu, who has chosen to honor his vow of silence even in the afterlife.
At length, the viewer finds out that Jianyu is not really a Buddhist monk. He is actually Jason Mendoza, a horrendous DJ who makes his money by selling college kids oregano as if it were weed and failing at cartoonish attempts to commit crime. He has been able to fly under the radar by seizing the opportunity to remain silent upon learning that Jianyu had taken a vow of silence.
Eleanor eventually surmises that sometimes it’s best not to be yourself, if you can be a better version of yourself instead. She is, however, a slow learner, so her issues in the neighborhood persist. Unable to figure out a cause, Michael deems himself a failure and announces that he means to retire, which for angelic beings means eternal unspeakable suffering. Forced into an ethical corner, Eleanor decides to tell Michael the reason for all the issues, knowing that it means her being sent to the Bad Place.
After many more hilarious attempts to rectify the situation, Eleanor figures out that there was no mistake after all. Tahani had done much good in her life, but her motivation was to outdo her sister, who was her parents’ favorite. Chidi had been so indecisive throughout his life that he ended up hurting many people in the process. Michael—it turns out—had read his Sartre. Rather than the usual fiery halls that the other Bad Place architects opted for, he chose to create a Heaven-like environment and allow the people to torture themselves and each other with their inadequacy. And it would have worked, too, if it weren’t for Eleanor’s conviction that she should become worthy of being in the Good Place, which influences the lives of the other three characters. The genuine love that the four of them grow to have toward one another leads them to uncover the ruse.
Overall, The Good Place presents a refreshing look into ethics. Without making reference to Christianity, the show ties deeply to the Christian message that no matter how perfect we seem on the outside, we are deeply broken. Our motivations may be corrupt, our actions may be reprehensible, or we may respond poorly to our circumstances; each of these can make a seemingly-good act evil. The good news is that all sins can be forgiven, if we are willing to change our ways. “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool. If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land,” says the Lord (Isa. 1:18-19). Sartre—who is almost undoubtedly the inspiration behind Michael—famously said, “hell is other people.” Yet the God who partook in our humanity has shown us that it doesn’t have to be so, if only we choose to follow Him.