Spoilers ahead for season one of The Good Place
I don’t know about you but I think about hell a lot, both as, like, a concept, and also as a reason to not be bad. I’m not preoccupied with it, but it’s part and parcel of my standard slow-boiling existential crisis. Also, I’m married to a pastor, so it’s kind of the family business. Well, heaven is the family business. Hell is the chief competitor.
Anyway, The Good Place, the NBC comedy in its second season starring Kristen Bell, is the most enjoyable way to think about hell on a weekly basis.
Last season we were led to believe the characters on the show were in a version of heaven called “The Good Place.” But in a stunning season finale twist, we found out the opposite was true: They were in hell. Literally. They were shook, I was shook; everyone was shook.
The characters thought they were in heaven — here imagined as a bustling small town — and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t making them happy. It wasn’t so much the place that was making them unhappy but each other. What’s that they say about hell being other people? Yeah, that. They’d been shoved together to torture each other forever.
Many sitcoms are about hell being other people (see: The Office, Seinfeld) but this is the first one to make the case so explicitly. It’s a lot for a Tuesday, but it’s one of the most fulfilling TV experiences I have every week. This show does the impossible: It takes a troubling, even horrifying philosophical concept and makes it not only funny, but thought-provoking.
In the beginning, the premise of the show was deceptively simple: Kristen Bell plays Eleanor, an objectively “bad” woman who dies and, due to a clerical error, ends up in “The Good Place” in the stead of a different Eleanor with a saintly track record. The bad Eleanor is paired with the good Eleanor’s soulmate, a dithering philosopher named Chidi (William Jackson Harper), and given a house full of the good Eleanor’s favorite things, including many clown paintings. This should have been the first sign.
Well, actually, it was. The whole first season, in retrospect, plays out like a thriller. It’s like rewatching Gossip Girl knowing Dan Humphrey’s secret. Bell’s Eleanor spends the season weighing the guilt over taking a place that wasn’t hers. Meanwhile, she and Chidi, plus their neighbors Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), slowly drove each other crazy.
Of course, all of this was by design. Ted Danson plays Michael, the architect of this scheme. He’s a bureaucratic demon with a lot of ambition; in this world hell operates like a large company and Michael is the office drone who dreams of making it big. This hell where people torture each other instead of being tortured by demons is his big play for a promotion.
Of course, it only works if the tortured humans don’t know about the scheme. Last season Eleanor figured it out, which forced Michael to pivot. Simultaneously, he had to fend off a coup by another ambitious demon with plans of her own.
There’s a lot happening. And it shouldn’t all work. That it does is a credit to its superb comedic cast (also one of the most racially diverse casts on television) and to creator Mike Schur, formerly of Parks and Rec.
The Good Place is like a high school philosophy class I was placed into by mistake. It’s the most educational half hour I’ve spent watching TV since Reading Rainbow went off the air. We don’t necessarily label the questions we have about our relationships and our world as philosophical, but The Good Place shows that more often than not, they are. How much do we want to help others? Are our desires selfish or for the sake of self-preservation? Are we good people?
Most of the time, the central conflict of a given episode involves a philosophical question. Recently, they took on the famous Trolley Problem in a hilarious and gruesome manner. Season one saw Eleanor grappling with the big ideas that have tortured humans for eons, like the value of sacrificing oneself for the greater good, and the relative consequences of victimless crimes. In season two, Eleanor and Chidi try to get Michael to understand those same concepts. While every episode is funny, one comes away with the notion that just being a human, with all the questions and frustrations that entails, is a sort of hell.
We’re living in the golden age of the seriocomic series, sometimes called Traumadies, because they tell stories of deep-seated pain with a cutting wit. Think of BoJack Horseman, which mines incredible humor and deep pathos from its broken characters. The Good Place belongs in that category, too. It’s perhaps the first Sit-Traumedy — a sitcom trauma comedy. And like the best of the genre, it’s trying to make sense of the human experience. It just so happens that none of these humans are human anymore. And, judging by how hard some of the existential questions it raises are, maybe that’s for the best.