Growing up Catholic, I was taught the fundamental difference between good and bad. Part of my parochial education was learning what constitutes a true mistake, a mortal sin, and original sin- the sin that comes to us in birth originated by the first sin committed by Adam and Eve. I also learned that one has to live a life full of good deeds, and truly repent for the wrong choices he or she has made, in order to experience God’s full grace and mercy, and thus get to spend eternity with him in heaven. Although I still consider myself Catholic, I have enjoyed spending my Sunday mornings attending non-denominational services with my family. I love the church I go to here in DC. The pastor of this community of believers often preaches that it is not what we can do, but only through believing in what Christ has done for us, that gets us into heaven. This belief doesn’t mean that we should spend our lives committing a bunch of horrible things, but it also brings into question what exactly can get us into “The Good Place.”
In 2016, NBC premiered a show based on the premise that four people, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason, had died and ended up in what they were told was The Good Place. This place had everything that as humans we are trained to believe is good- it was full of all the things we desire in our lives. For every person, there was a soul mate, someone with whom to spend eternity. One’s home here mirrored the kind of person he or she was in life (which meant most were extremely nice, tastefully decorated, and very spacious), and the town itself was clean with ample choices of things to do. One could even learn to fly! There was also a walking, talking “Alexa” type woman who was able to give any answers or anything one desired. Want an addition to that already dream house of yours? Poof, here it is! Yes, it was the dream town- a town which all towns here on Earth aspire to be.
However, it all was a coo. You see, the town was the design of a demon architect who literally spent thousands of years working for the head architect in the “Bad Place.” Finally getting his shot to create a neighborhood for torture, he decided to create one that mimics the “Good Place” by creating an dream city. He then chose four recently deceased humans who, by their deeds, ended up in the Bad Place, and tricked them to believe they were in the Good Place. In reality, they’d be put in situations wherein they’d be doom to drive each other crazy forever. The idea was very different from any form of torture the other demons in the “Bad Place had seen before, but ultimately it was decided that it was worth a try…. or at least 800. Each time the timeline was reset, one of the four humans realized they were in the “Bad Place.” And suddenly our demon architect, who is ingeniously played by Ted Danson, had to figure out another way to torture the four humans, until he decided to try to save them instead.
I won’t give you too much more detail about the show, although I think I might have given away much of season 1. In my defense, you’ve had two years to watch it! It’s on Hulu and Netflix so you can catch up! The Good Place is the most brilliant show on television because it questions our concepts of what’s good and what’s bad. In the show, there is an intricate point system that determines where you go in the afterlife. Certain acts carry a specific number of points. If you get so many good points, then boom! you are in the “Good Place.” Conversely, if you fail, then you go the “Bad Place.” So you mean to tell me there’s a point system? That what you do in this life matters, no matter what or who you believe in? Mind blown! I realize that this is a work of fiction but it brings up another interesting point. What is good and what is bad, really and truly? Who judges the distinction between the two? And further more, what if you do something bad, but for a good reason? What happens then? This show does an excellent job at exploring those questions as well.
Another part of the show which I find really fascinating is the idea that every thing we believe is good that was placed in the fake “Good Place” had to do with material possessions- big houses, nice neighborhood, getting what is desired at the moment it is desired (thanks human Alexa aka Janet), and the idea of true love and companionship. All these things constitute our understanding of living the dream… having all we desire without the cares or the worries that often accompany those wants. So then we are forced to ask ourselves, is getting what we want, truly what we should have? Does that mean that all our worries and cares automatically disappear? Even in the midst of pure paradise, these four humans were able to figure out that they were in the “Bad Place” during each and every reset. Regardless of all the wonderful things they had in this place, there was still a sense of unrest. And regardless of the mistakes they may have made in their lives, they felt a sense of urgency to do what they could to get out.
So how does this show relate to us? What can we learn from it? I believe that there is a time when we realize that our lives can be so much more. That we can do so much more. Because I am a Christian, I believe that there is a Force much stronger than anything we could ever, ever imagine. That Force tells us over and over again to trust Him… to cast all our cares and worries onto Him. And that regardless of what we might be dealing with, He is there to bring us through. But what happens if you are like me and believe that you got this; that whatever you want for your own life, you make it work, how to want, when you want? That instead of trusting an all knowing, all powerful Force who created us, we take our own lives into our own hands? Of course, there will be times where you will get just what you think you should have. And I believe that sometimes the Big Guy will allow you to have what you think should have just to show you that perhaps you really didn’t need it in the first place. When we come to this realization, perhaps we find ourselves in our own personal “Bad Place.” Once we realize this, it is our instinct, like the four humans in the show, to do what we can to get out as quickly as possible.
My final point examines whether we are conditioned to see certain things as being “good” or “bad.” As I mentioned earlier, the fake “Good Place” had everything that we have been conditioned to know as good, while all the while being a place of tension and unrest. This is truly antithetical to what heaven is supposed to be. Heaven should be a place of peace and serenity, not something that looks like paradise but feels like hell. Similarly, things that might appear unpleasant or difficult might actually yield the most good for us. We often see these challenges as something to be avoided rather than embraced for the fear that it won’t “feel good.” And what doesn’t “feel good” has to be bad, right? Wrong! This show exhibited this with the classic case of the “got yous” with the fake “Good Place.” Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason figured out that they were in the bad place because something just didn’t feel quite right about where they were. Once they came to this realization, it motivated them to try to do the right things so that they could receive salvation and get to the real “Good Place” on their own.
The question that the show is now exploring is whether or not one has to achieve a certain amount of good deeds in order to get to spend salvation in true paradise. Our humans were lucky; they were able to get a demon on their side to give them a second chance at getting their lives right. Not everything has been easy for them in this new timeline, and there have been temptation along the way. However, everything they have perceived about “good” and “bad” have been jumbled up, and now they must figure out how to find salvation in a place wherein not everything is as clear cut as the point system suggests. Welcome to Earth! They, like the rest of us, must figure out how to live their best lives, so that the afterlife can be even better.
Unlike beauty, good and bad isn’t always in the eye of the beholder; there are definitely things that are clearly bad and should be avoided, and there are things that are good, that we should strive for. But there are definite gray areas, more often than not, and it is our handling of those situational gray areas that helps us better understand right from wrong. Motive for a specific action can truly determine if one is doing the right thing, or if one is making the wrong choice. I can’t wait to see where this third season takes us!
Plus seeing Adam Scott as a narcissistic son of a gun is quite possibly the best thing ever! It’s Ben Wyatt gone bad! (Shout out to y’all who get that reference!)