Whatever the afterlife turns out to look like, The Good Place suggests there will probably be a lot of bureaucracy involved. This isn’t only true of the sharp, thoughtful new NBC comedy, created by Michael Schur (of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine fame). It’s also true of many of the last century’s most indelible depictions of the next world, from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (with its “conductors” and heavenly appeals court) to Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life (where the newly dead are systematically examined, then loaded into trams “moving on” or “going back”). The question in all of these portrayals are the same: What do we deserve? Where do we belong? And who is in charge of determining that?
When Eleanor Shellstrop (played by the irresistible Kristen Bell) arrives in the hereafter, she is told that the universe weighs each person’s good and bad deeds. If there’s a lot more good than bad, presto! You wake up in the Good Place, a heaven that is three parts wish fulfillment (Live in your dream home! Gorge on a zillion flavors of FroYo! Spend the day flying!) and one part life-project fulfillment (Spend eternity with your perfect soulmate! Achieve your ultimate purpose!).
But if there’s more bad than good, or even if you’re just “medium,” as Eleanor posits, there’s no place for you in the Good Place. Michael (Ted Danson), the cruise director of the heavenly town where Eleanor has landed, gives her a little audio snippet of the only other destination: the Bad Place. It’s just people screaming in agony.
The underlying tension in The Good Place has to do with fairness.
We haven’t gotten far enough into The Good Place to know whether there are any portals between the places, or whether anyone ever gets reassigned after the initial judgment. But Eleanor has a personal reason to be anxious: she’s actually quite a bad person. And at least one of her neighbors—maybe more—also came on a counterfeit ticket.
The underlying tension in Schur’s show has to do with fairness. Eleanor is enough of a bad person to worry most about being found out, not about the injustice of getting what she didn’t deserve. But as her supposed soulmate Chidi (an ethics professor, played by William Jackson Harper) tries to teach what being good actually entails, she becomes more and more aware of the conflict between the way this afterlife placement service is set up and the actual relationship of moral goodness and consequences, both heavenly and earthly.
What doesn’t appear explicitly in The Good Place—at least not yet—is the notion of grace. Eleanor discovers what she assumes is a mistake in the accounts. In dealing with that discovery, she never questions whether it is in fact the accounts or perhaps some more personal force that rule all that is in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. Either way, she finds herself on the receiving end of unmerited favor. Even though nobody has acknowledged the concept, Eleanor is a picture of prevenient grace. For the first time in her life or afterlife, she wants to change, because of where this grace has placed her. And maybe that makes her more than medium good after all.