Why The Good Place Misses Greatness

Let me lay my cards on the table: I love The Good Place.

I first started watching it about a year ago, when I was sick for a weekend and confined to my dorm room. Two seasons in one day: easy money. I watched season three when it came out on Netflix in August, and I’ve been keeping up with season four every week since.

When Michael Schur came to campus in September (Editor’s Note: Schur was hosted by an FTT/Philosophy course, “The Good Class,” inspired by The Good Place), I couldn’t make the talk. I was devastated. Thankfully, my friend took notes on it for me, and I later watched the whole thing on YouTube.

The Good Place is unafraid to lay its cards out on the table. It wants to make you a better person. As Schur explained in his lecture, it uses philosophy, reason, and humor to arrive, essentially, at the concept of natural law. Well, not explicitly. But, pretty much? The Good Place argues that we, as humans, can become better people. You can’t become a better person, though, if there isn’t some standard for “best:” some underlying objective goodness that we all recognize in our hearts. For those in The Good Place, this means a system of rigid positive and negative points that will ultimately determine your eternal home. The system ought to be flawless, but as the premise quickly unravels, we learn that it is imperfect. Hijinks ensue.

  However, there is an issue in the show. It’s immediately obvious, yet doesn’t seem to affect anyone. In fact, I only realized its problematic nature after a friend expressed it to me. “It’s all made up,” he said.

“Duh,” I answered. That’s not the point of the show. The point of the show is that we can become better people, not that we arrive at “the good place”—a non-religious afterlife in which every little desire is met—that is actually described in the show. 

But, as I began to ponder my friend’s complaint, I began to realize something. The point is indeed to arrive at the show’s “good place.” Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason all strive to become better people in order to end up in and lead others to the made up “good place,” and when they find it, it seems even that fails to satisfy.

This problem, I think, undermines The Good Place’s mission statement. If there is no satisfactory “good place” at which we might arrive, what is the point in becoming better people?

Of course, Christians believe that there is somethingーsome “Good Place”ーto strive for: perfect union with God in heaven. To us, it’s very real, but that’s because we have millenia of doctrine, tradition, and revelation guiding us to that idea. That’s because God Incarnate made this possible for us. The Good Place lacks that. It lacks faith. It needs God. It tells us to become better people, sure, but it doesn’t tell us how to do so or even why we should; it fails to mention for whom we are made. 

Granted, the show is semi-based in virtue ethics, the idea that becoming a better person actually makes us a happier person, so it does offer some explanation. But it’s easy to forget this explanation when we’re caught up in the world of flying shrimp, fro-yo hell, and strangely passionate Jacksonville Jaguars fans.

To my friend, this problem was a barrier to him enjoying the show. He, a man struggling with both his faith in God and belief in the afterlife, questioned the point of the whole show, and I can’t quite blame him for that. But with the show’s finale airing last night (January 30th), I want to make an argument for why you should still watch it (Author’s note: Without, I admit, being able to comment on the finale itself!).

My friend’s uneasiness about the show launched us into a several-hour conversation about truth, faith, and the afterlife. We might never have had that conversation if I hadn’t offhandedly mentioned how much I like the show. The Good Place is a catalyst. It gets the ball rolling on important questions that some students have never had answered. The Good Places’s ignorance of the reality of faith and the afterlife, can, in fact, point us to that reality.  It points us towards the fundamental truth that we have goodness written on our hearts, that we were made for something more, and that we can strive to attain it. Where we go from there, though, is up to us. 

I, of course, believe that there is indeed a place to go. The Church answers all the questions that The Good Place leaves in the air. She introduces us not only to goodness, but to the one who is Goodness. God makes known to us both the justice and the mercy that Eleanor, Chidi, and the gang were unable to find. He tells us of the relationality the show’s core cast long for, and just why perfection without that communion is not beatitude at all. It is frustrating that The Good Place ignores this reality. But Michael Schur was very intentional when he made the show non-religious.  While I have no idea if he had hopes of viewers working their way towards religion, I do know that he wanted viewers to work their way towards goodness.

Where they go from there, again, is up to them. But I’d like to think that when we set off for the Good Place, we will find God waiting for us on our way.

John Burke is a sophomore from St. Louis, MO, studying the Program of Liberal Studies and economics. He has decided that watching TV is important to his education, and, if you disagree, he’ll probably ignore you. You can send show or movie suggestions his way at jburke23@nd.edu.