Hell is a place on earth

Spoilers for The Good Place, seasons 1–3

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Katie Jane Fernelius is a writer, reporter, and radio maker. She runs a Substack called ceci n’est pas un newsletter. You can follow her on Twitter at @kjfernelius.

The first shot of The Good Place opens with a close-up on Eleanor Shellstrop’s eyes; on the wall in front of her, Kermit-colored text reads, “Welcome! Everything is fine.”

Eleanor is in the Good Place, we are told. Throughout her life, every action she ever took has been recorded, assigned either a positive or negative value, and tallied into a grand total determining her ranking. But there’s been an accounting error: This Eleanor is an Arizona dirtbag of a human being who would never make it into the Good Place. She spends the rest of the season avoiding being discovered and trying to earn her keep in heaven. But the first season ends with the appropriate and satisfying twist: Eleanor was never in the Good Place; she was in the Bad Place all along, in a paradise designed to torment. Once Eleanor discovers this, Michael, angel-cum-torturer, snaps his fingers, and the whole thing starts over. Through hundreds of afterlives and even a stint on Earth, Eleanor and her gang keep trying and failing to escape the Bad Place through the sheer force of being good. But being good has yet to work.

In its third season, The Good Place advances a startling thesis: It is nearly impossible to get into heaven. In fact, no one has done so in over five hundred years.

Most of the time, I am reminded of the world’s depravity in small rushes of anxiety, usually when I am doing something modestly indulgent, like riding an airplane or eating bacon. Chidi regularly laments his use of air conditioning and love of almond milk; I sympathize. “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” I hum while eating foie gras. “Self-care is radical,” I insist while ordering face masks off Amazon for same-day delivery. “Honoring my desires is revolutionary in a capitalist system predicated on my alienation,” I solemnly swear while debating whether to swipe right on a Logan Paul fan on Tinder. Admissions of culpability, but not responsibility.

“Why can’t there be a medium place?” Eleanor implores. It’s tempting to agree: most of us are not vegan human rights lawyers who have dedicated our lives to saving victims of genocide while volunteering at soup kitchens in our free time and adopting formerly abused cats, but why should that make us have to spend an eternity splayed across hot coals with bees up our noses?

I mean, I want to be a good person. I tip my waiters well. I don’t cut in lines at the post office. I rarely eat meat on Mondays. I let people merge in traffic. Still, I’d be lucky to get into the Medium Place. Desire might be sufficient for political identity—I do want to live in a world that is fair and equitable—but desire is insufficient on the ethical report card. “This system sucks," bitches Eleanor. "What, one in a million gets to live in paradise and everyone else is tortured for eternity? Come on." My almond milk–loving ass whines with her.

The Good Place premiered in 2016: the year the liberal bourgeoisie finally realized that moral authority was as real as Santa Claus. In the confusing years since, like children trying to resuscitate a fairy, they’ve attempted to revive that authority through sheer insistence of belief: safety pins, color-blocked yard signs, reprises of “When they go low, we go high.” They’ve dug in the heels of their goody two shoes, performing shock anew at every daily incivility and presidential typos; to the liberal bourgeoisie, evil is evil because it’s tasteless. The devils of The Good Place are Jersey guidos and fraternity brothers, badgering women into smiling and performing karaoke to the Watergate tapes. Roger Stone could easily be slid into the show’s demonology.

It’s easy to say that The Good Place is a show about people trying to be good. Early plot points of the first season follow Eleanor doing her philosophy homework, being friendly to an annoying neighbor, and forgoing flying in order to pick-up litter. But Eleanor’s attempts to be good read like the self-congratulatory posts of Pantsuit Nation where people herald unfriending their Trump-voting relatives, subscribing to a local newspaper, and speaking kindly in Spanish to their cleaning lady. “Fork” replaces “fuck,” “shirt” replaces “shit,” and “Drumpf” replaces “Trump.”

But over its three seasons, The Good Place has developed into a show that exemplifies the flaccidness of the liberal concept of goodness. The one glimpse into the actual Good Place we get on the show involves a Committee so committed to bureaucracy that they propose a plan that will take 400 years to make a new committee and 1000 more years to see if there are conflicts of interest. This is their idea of doing good. Michael aptly describes the Committee as “ineffectual dorks in fleece vests,” which sounds like an alternate tagline for Pod Save America.

The show satirizes the aesthetics of goodness while also believing in the enterprise of being good. If there is a moral theory to the show, it’s that when we commit to each other, we commit to being good. (T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe Each Other makes a recurring appearance.) And each episode of the official The Good Place: The Podcast ends with the invocation to “go do something good.” It’s an optimism that feels more comforting than true in a universe where goodwill has repeatedly been suspect.

The Good Place, like any true-to-form sitcom, is a series of reboots: Michael product-tests torture through new system updates of hell, there are romances re-romanced over and over again, and there are even new chances on earth for our cherished humans to become good enough. Now, the third season ends with yet another reboot and the beginning of a new trial in this moral experiment: will four new humans put into similar conditions replicate the same outcome, i.e. trying to be good? It’s ethics rendered in the genre of FiveThirtyEight, expressing a fidelity to objectivity that borders on insane. (It should be noted that no one from the Enlightenment made it into The Good Place.)

We’re currently buried in a deluge of news stories about the 2020 election as campaign announcements flash through our feeds, embarrassing and damning histories rebut new positions, and everyone is scampering over the right to moral authority.

This election feels not just like another reboot, but a scientific trial, too. Let’s change our variables: Can we run another white woman, or a black man? What about a woman of color? How far can we turn the dials on progressiveness or moderation? Will we replicate what happened last time? Can we be good?  

This is a guest post! Guest posts are initially available only to subscribers, then later become public. If you’re interested in pitching me a post (I pay!), email me at paperviewletter@gmail.com.