By Dang Tran Minh Phuong (Annie) (24A01A)
I. EVERYTHING IS FINE
Or is it? When Eleanor Shellstrop sat on the couch in the afterlife, looking at the wall, everything was fine for her. She had just died and was completely oblivious to her entire situation—she didn’t have a lot to worry about. I, however, am very much alive and very (overly) aware of my situation—what do I make of my life?
Milan Kundera, in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, argues that, because life only occurs once, it is therefore at once both heavy and light—overwhelmingly light. What are you supposed to do when you only have one shot at life? On the one hand, who cares? Do whatever you want to do! On the other, you only have this one life.
The chaos surrounding the purpose and direction of my life has been uncomfortably buzzing about in my brain, unrelenting and ceaseless. Yet, watching The Good Place has given me an immeasurable amount of pure comfort.
A clever show about love, goodness, and absurdity, the sitcom explores questions of what it means to be a good person and how to live life to its fullest. It is unique and witty, incorporating philosophical themes and questions along the way, which surfaces foundational questions about what it means to be human.
After tens of times rewatching the sitcom, I have finally condensed the lessons I have learned from The Good Place into words.
II. FINDING MEANING IN NOTHING
The sitcom acknowledges from the get-go that life is incredibly chaotic and absurd. It’s difficult to make meaning out of it. In fact, what is the point of finding a purpose in something you’ll only experience once and probably never remember once you’re dead?
Now, all the characters go through some kind of existential crisis throughout the show. When Chidi (a professor of moral philosophy) went through his crisis, he stood over a boiling pot of chilli and proclaimed that “the true meaning of life, the actual ethical system that [everyone] should all follow is nihilism”.
“The world is empty. There is no point to anything and you’re just gonna die. So, do whatever!” he declared.
Eleanor, at one of her lowest points, pleaded with Janet to tell her the answer to “everything”. “There has to be meaning to existence. Otherwise, the universe is just made of pain and I don’t like the thought of that!” she cried.
Even Michael, who’s an immortal being, similarly spiralled into an existential crisis, exclaiming that “searching for meaning is philosophical suicide”.
“How does anyone do anything when you understand the fleeting nature of existence?” he questioned.
Eleanor’s answer: “It’s pretty easy, man.”
She then unpacked the human condition to Michael in pretty simple terms: “You’re learning what it’s like to be human. All humans are aware of death, so we’re all a little bit sad, all the time. That’s just the deal.”
All this is to say that the struggle to find meaning in the briefness of life is not at all uncommon, and the panic that arises from it is perfectly sound. From Arizona-trash-bag Eleanor to immortal Michael, truly no one can escape the question of what one’s life purpose is. Comfortingly, however, the characters of the sitcom grapple with this question in various ways.
Chidi reasoned that an existential crisis is simply “an acknowledgement that life is absurd” and “that absurdity needs to be confronted”. In fact, he believed that our actions have meaning because life has an end.
His outlook was some funny twist of ‘exposure therapy’, in that you shouldn’t shy away from what makes you uncomfortable. Embracing the discomfort of the uncertain and unknown is a better step forward than taking multiple steps away from it.
An alternative view the sitcom offers is that it is morality that offers meaning to our lives and also morality that helps navigate that meaning, which tracks. After all, the show is called The Good Place – and not just because it represents the paradise one could theoretically enter after death, but because it questions what it means to be a good person and even how we measure someone’s goodness.
To this effect, T. M. Scalon’s “What We Owe to Each Other” plays a significant role in the show as a device to advance the plot in a variety of ways. It leads Eleanor to find Chidi in one of the many afterlives and it also probes the characters (most crucially, Eleanor) to discover why they should be good. Chidi argues that we desire to be good because of our connections to other people, that we want to help people out of love.
Perhaps that is how we find meaning—in loving people and doing good because of that.
However, despite its various interpretations of the meaning of life, The Good Place also cautions us from rushing and dedicating our whole lives to the singular cause of finding our life’s purpose. Part of the fun of life is its unpredictability.
Janet, who is not a girl or a robot, believed that part of the fun of being human is the fact that not everything makes sense. In response to Eleanor’s demand to know the answer to “everything”, Janet said that giving a straight answer to how the universe works would be incredibly unspecial and dull: “it would just be machinery fulfilling its cosmic design, it would just be a big, dumb food processor”.
And that is precisely why we feel pure joy when we find something or someone that seems to make sense. It is this remarkability of finding this sense in the randomness and pandemonium of life that keeps us going.
As Eleanor nicely concludes it, “I guess all I can do is embrace the pandemonium. Find happiness in the unique insanity of being here, now.”
III. IT’S DIFFICULT TO BE A GOOD PERSON
The Good Place, with one of its major plot points being the characters questioning what it means to be a good person and how they can become one, acknowledges that certain circumstances can prevent someone from being a better person. As Michael realises, “Life now is so complicated, it’s impossible for anyone to be good enough for The Good Place”.
This is one of the most important lessons I took away from the show because it recognises that the world is growing increasingly complicated and it is difficult to constantly make “good” decisions.
A simple example that the show raises is the seemingly straightforward act of buying a tomato at a grocery store. Although extremely innocent and innocuous on the surface, this act actually implicates the buyer. They have, through purchasing the tomato, unwittingly supported toxic pesticides, exploited labour, and contributed to global warming.
Life has just gotten that complicated.
“Life is complicated? That’s your big revelation? That’s a divorced woman’s throw pillow,” the Judge (the highest authority in the afterlife) first said.
Except, as the Judge would quickly realise, life being complicated is worse than a divorced woman’s throw pillow.
The singular choice of doing anything has dozens of hidden choices under the surface. These harmful choices, which are now part of the bigger and seemingly innocent choice, are nearly unavoidable too.
Doug Forcett is a character in the show who forced himself to drink his own urine and walk thousands of miles to pay under a hundred dollars to a snail charity—all as a form of repentance after stepping on a snail. He shows how frustrating it is to try and be the best person you can.
Even though he is, on paper, the most exceptional human being (because he over-obsesses over every action to ensure he does the most good to earn him a guaranteed spot in The Good Place) and goes to ridiculous lengths to do good, he still ends up not qualifying to enter The Good Place.
Granted, at this point (pun intended), the point system for The Good Place is not yet updated to keep up with the more complicated times of today, which is why Doug does not make the cut as a good person. And, also granted, Doug wasn’t actually doing that much good (if we’re basing “goodness” on how much you actually mean the good act—which is a conversation for another day) because he was only doing good acts hoping for moral dessert.
So, let’s take Chidi, who is the best example of this struggle to be good. He gets a stomach ache from the moral dilemmas he faces on a daily (even hourly) basis! One of his most recognisable traits is his indecision.
Yet, even though he tries to make the right decisions by fretting over each and every one of them, he still ends up failing and even causing harm because of his indecision.
Watching these characters get themselves in a twist trying to be as good as possible made me sympathise greatly with them. Especially in these complex times, I believe we need to give ourselves more grace and be kinder to ourselves.
While striving to be better is ideal, being so harsh on ourselves sometimes does little to benefit anyone.
“Every day the world gets a little more complicated and being a good person gets a little harder.”
IV. WE ARE BETTER TOGETHER
My Little Pony was spot on with “friendship is magic”, because that’s what friendship really is—magic.
Michael once pleaded, “People improve when they get external love and support. How can we hold it against them when they don’t?”
Humans better one another (most of the time). It wasn’t until Eleanor died and met her Soul Squad that she truly began her character growth for the better.
The four humans were put in the same neighbourhood together as Michael’s original design was for them to torture one another for eternity with their many flaws. Chidi would torture everyone with his indecision, and be tortured by Eleanor’s initial complete disregard for being a good person.
Tahani would torture everyone with her seeming perfection, and be tortured by being compared to people who are better. Eleanor would be tortured by being made to feel inferior to everyone. And Jason… Well, Jason tortured everyone with his refusal to be serious and his childish, carefree nature.
Yet, in a stunning reversal of plans, these four humans did the complete opposite of what Michael expected—they made one another better people.
In every version of the afterlife, Chidi never failed to help Eleanor by conducting ethics lessons with her. Jason was unwaveringly optimistic and stood strongly by his new friends. Tahani consistently looked out for her new friends and was a good confidant. Even more surprisingly, this friendship extended beyond the four of them, as it overflowed and enveloped Michael and Janet, who grew to be better people as a result.
To prove their point, the Soul Squad repeated this “experiment” with new sets of humans and found that, they too, improved as well.
“This is the whole story. No one is beyond rehabilitation. Brent spent a year being an absolute diaper load of a human being, and the points total tells you that. But what that number can’t tell you… is who he could have become tomorrow.”
With people, with friends, you can grow. This obviously does not guarantee that you will emerge the best person ever, but it does give you a pretty good shot at becoming better. And that’s the big message, that people need support and motivation to be better, and that this is found in others.
And, actually, in an immensely touching turn of events, Chidi realised that his answer… is Eleanor. Chidi, a moral philosophy professor, who had spent his whole life (literally his whole life, because he only figured this out after he died) wracked with indecision and seeking the truth and the answer to everything, found his answer. Eleanor.
This ties in with the struggle to find the purpose of life. Maybe, probably, definitely, it’s the people. At least for me, it surely has been.
While this concept certainly does not erase the horrors of the human race, it does defend humanity in an incredibly moving way.
Yes, hell may be other people—but so is help.
“The reason is friends. The point is to try. You can be better tomorrow than you were today.”
V. WHAT NOW
The Good Place was incredibly soothing for me because it took all my anxieties about, well, everything, and materialised them into situations and characters in the sitcom. That step alone, of verbalising my fears in moving lines and touching scenes, was already tear-jerking enough for me because I finally had the closest reflection of what I was struggling with.
Essentially, I felt less crazy.
But beyond that, The Good Place really got me thinking about what it means to be a good person and the journey it takes to become one. This has grounded me because it has given me a clearer direction of what I want to do with my life.
All in all, with its very human characters (yes, even Michael and Janet), clever lines, and perfect execution, The Good Place genuinely made me feel that, yes, everything will be fine.