Friday, May 19, 2017

What's So Good About The Good Place?

I've been wanting to write about this show for months now. Maybe I'm a frustrated Television Without Pity (RIP) Recapper . Or maybe I can't get over what appears to me as a modern sequel to The Screwtape Letters. Either way, certain aspects of this show have stayed with me and puzzled and delighted me in surprising ways. So if you haven't seen season one of The Good Place and/or don't want any spoilers, stop reading this post immediately.

Here is a show in which a young woman, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristin Bell) is welcomed to the afterlife by Michael - no last name (Ted Danson). Michael is clearly a bit nervous as he had just had a promotion in which he was allowed to design his own Utopian neighborhood in, select its citizens and keep everything on a heavenly even keel. Eleanor is assured that she is in the good place. "Whew," she seems to say.

How did she make it into the good place, she wonders? Michael assures her that this is a common question. The data of one's life are analyzed with each act given a number of points accorded by level of goodness to be balanced by each bad act and its negative points assigned in a similar manner. Now I don't know about you, but that was how I learned it in Catholic School. It was a bit less data driven, but basically your good had to outweigh your bad. Very transactional. Very bank account, business ledger-ish.

Problem is, of course, that Eleanor knows immediately that she is there by mistake. When she meets her "soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and her near neighbors Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), she is terrified that her own lack of virtue will come to light, she will be outed and sent off to perdition.

Eleanor is increasingly frightened about her fate. Chidi, a ponderous ethics scholar undertakes to teach her about ethics in an effort to "save" her after she confesses the mistake to him. She doesn't fit in with Tahani, the wealthy philanthropist and Jianyu a Buddhist monk whose vow of silence has accompanied him into the after life.

To everyone but me apparently, this is a light-hearted comedy, so fluffy, funny things happen. An even keel is not maintained. Michael just about goes bonkers as his perfect neighborhood becomes increasingly chaotic. Our four new residents are increasingly miserable and increasingly turn to each other for comfort with varying degrees of honesty.

Everyone knows that Kristin Bell can figure things out. Three seasons of Veronica Mars have not gone in vain. I had every confidence that she would survive this crisis as she had done so magnificently before. I had also begun to dismiss every bit of religious relevance in the show. Now I didn't care about that; I just hoped that Veronica, I mean Eleanor, would survive and the other three as well.

And I was not disappointed. Eleanor guesses that not only does she not deserve to be in the good place, neither do Chidi or Tahani or Jianyu. Is this a massive error on Michael's part? Nope. They are in The Bad Place. Their torture for all eternity was to be the way they would deceive and annoy each other. If you are Satan, this is a brilliant plot! Let that self deception and self loathing eat away at people for all eternity. Let them project their misery on each other. You can sit back and enjoy the show.

The problem is this: In their time together, these four condemned souls actually grew in every possible virtue known to network television. They became kinder, more honest, wiser, more generous. What Michael, and his many helpers did not reckon on was that divine spark in all humanity. Given a bit of time it will come out and we will turn around. Put us with each other and, if you're Satan, you just might be asking for trouble.

I think C.S. Lewis would have loved this show. Nothing like making Satan look a fool. Nothing like letting his evil plans blow up in his handsome face. Just like Wormwood at the close of The Screwtape Letters, Michael had to see his condemned souls find virtue, grow in love and be lost to him.

Of course, this is television and Season II is on the horizon. Michael has a plan to thwart these newly saved souls. Will it work? Or will Kristin Bell prove herself more than a match for any bad guy once more? I'll be watching.

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