(Spoilers for the whole show)
because the show draws so obviously from conservative, christian beliefs about the purpose of life.
One of the people I watched TGP with speculated that there are no actual children in the good place – as in, the place portrayed on the show, both its bad-place-masquerade and true form – because it would be too depressing for the audience to contemplate dead kids. I’m not against that – I could have read Gravity’s Rainbow in the same time it took to watch TGP, but it was a pandemic, and I was looking for the familiar pleasures of a network sitcom: easy to digest and comforting.1
But things fall apart in the series finale, once the characters have gotten to the actual good place, and we view the pleasures and joys they pursue. Jason plays the world’s best game of Madden, Tahani learns to make chairs and burp the alphabet, Chidi and Eleanor have a lovely dinner catching up with old friends (their ideal good life, it seems, is being childless, living in a city, well off, and in your 30s, forever). Each reconciles or reunites with their parents.
And I can’t accept that none of them, given literally all the time in the universe, think that life’s essential pleasures might include, e.g., watching your child take their first steps, graduate from college, have children of their own, &c. Lots of people who have kids, ahem, seem to find meaning in it:
My own informal research says that grandparent couples are happy couples. Some of that is selection bias–if you stuck it out as a couple long enough to have your grandchildren born, you are in good shape as a couple. But I think that some of it is that if you have children, then you want grandchildren, and when they arrive you feel real joy and satisfaction.
Here is the meaning of life: …to make babies with her, with him, or to find them some other way, but then to raise them up, and watch them do the same thing, generation after generation, so that when you die you know you are permanently a part of the great web of life. That you are not a loose thread, snipped off.
What these writers – Arnold Kling and Orson Scott Card, respectively – have in common is that their politics could be called conservative, and conservative ideas don’t get a lot of explicit attention on network TV. But what’s bizarre here is that The Good Place is an extremely conservative, religious show at its core. It’s a story about a bunch of people who discover that there really is a jduge, that there really is a heaven, and that the key to getting there is to live a good life as defined by a book of rules. Hell, the show even commits to the idea that the modern world is too complex to be unambiguously good in, thereby implicitly pining for, get this, a pre-modern existence. That’s not even conservative, that’s closer to reactionary.
Therein lies the deep weirdness at the heart of The Good Place. The words coming out of its characters’ mouths, and the choices they pursue, are Very Right Now, very urban liberal, but its core conceit is that Christianity is 100% right about the big stuff (heaven, hell, creation, angels, demons, etc.). One way the show tries to thread this needle is by just ignoring any topic that might bring the tension between those two things to the fore, like whether the good life involves having or raising children, and asks us to accept that the the idea of doing so doesn’t occur to anyone up there, ever, given all eternity. All in all, it makes for a show that’s a lot of fun to watch, but strange to think about once you’ve finished.
5/5 stars, would recommend
It’s a fun touch that the The Good Place stars Ted Danson (of Cheers fame) and features a scene of him tending bar. My viewing companions are persons of a certain age, and that was a visual reference they noticed and appreciated. My relationship to Cheers is more mediated that that: I think of The Ice King on Adventure Time singing the Cheers theme, trying to keep touch with reality as mania overcomes him. “Making your way in the world today,” he sings, tremulously, nearly sobbing. Simon trusts TV, for it always gives, never asks too much, is never too tired to offer solace, though it finds us barely holding on. “Television!” Homer says. “Teacher, mother; secret lover.” “The true American art form,” Kenneth Parcell chimes in.↩︎