Wednesday, February 06, 2019

It's Easy to Be a Saint in Paradise: Thoughts on The Good Place's Third Season

The Good Place is the best show on television. I don't even see how there could be a debate at this stage. No other show combines such lofty ambitions with such graceful execution, such weighty themes with such a total lack of self-seriousness. It succeeds on every one of the many levels it operates on—as an uproariously funny comedy, as a touching relationship drama, as a thought-provoking philosophical treatise on goodness and self-improvement, and as a gonzo feat of fantastic worldbuilding.

It's also a show that—with its typical earnestness—pokes holes in all the hallowed truisms about what a prestigious, "serious" TV show is supposed to look like. Game of Thrones has got everyone convinced that character death is the only way to achieve meaningful drama? On The Good Place, everyone is already dead, and the only serious threat to the characters' wellbeing—that of being tortured for eternity—is so over the top and inconsistent with the show's comedic tone that it could clearly never happen. And yet the show frequently packs a heftier punch than any dozen other more serious dramas. It aired on January 24th, and yet I doubt that TV in 2019 will deliver a more harrowing, quietly devastating moment than Chidi and Eleanor's farewell at the end of the third season. And in a landscape still so Lost-struck that it views out-of-nowhere twists as the highest form of serialized writing, The Good Place repeatedly reminds us how hard that sort of thing is to do well. Every one of the show's revelations—and the third season delivers not one but two whoppers—has been seeded well in advance, not as part of a mystery to be solved, but as a component of a system to be worked out. That feeling of "yes! I knew it!" you get when the show reveals that, for example, no one has gotten into the real good place in five hundred years, is more satisfying than a dozen island hatches.

All of which is to say that it can be a bit intimidating to express criticism or skepticism about The Good Place's worldbuilding, because odds are that your reaction is the point, all the way back to "wait, the afterlife in this show doesn't make any sense" in the first season. Nevertheless, I find myself troubled by some of the conclusions the show reaches in its third season and where it proceeds from them. Maybe the fourth season will demonstrate that my reaction was the one the writers were hoping for, or maybe we've bumped up against the limitations of the show's core assumptions. Time will tell.

The third season of The Good Place continues the show's penchant for constant reinvention. In its first few episodes, the damned human protagonist are given a second chance on Earth to demonstrate that they are capable of becoming better people, and eventually—with the help of reformed demon Michael and all-knowing being Janet—reunite and form a support group for their efforts at self-improvement. This already-tenuous status quo is quickly overturned when Michael and Janet accidentally reveal themselves and are forced to spill the beans, thus re-damning the group—now that they know about the point system that determines who gets into the good and bad places, they can no longer gain points because any good action they take will be in expectation of moral desserts. (It's indicative of the sheer conceptual tonnage of this show that an idea this fraught and open to debate—why is it bad to do good things in the expectation of a reward?—is just left on the table as an assumption we all need to accept, in order to deal with even weightier concepts.)

From here, the show quickly launches itself back into its familiar combination of cosmic and philosophical. In the midst of their efforts to help other people turn their lives around, the gang discovers that no one, no matter how virtuous, selfless, and careful not to inflict harm on the world, has gotten into the good place in centuries. Which leads to a sort of revolt against heaven, and finally the conclusion that what's at fault is capitalism itself—that in the system of exploitation, inequality, and endless supply chains in which we all live, even selfless, generous acts become objectively harmful behavior.

It must be acknowledged that this is all carried off with a verve and degree of skill that are simply exhilarating to behold. The early episodes of the season, in which the gang return to earth, are not my favorite use of the show's premise, but nevertheless they offer many pleasures: Tahani's romance with Larry, the least-successful Hemsworth brother (Ben Lawson); Janet's frustration at no longer possessing her powers of omniscience and omnipotence ("humans only live eighty years, and they spend so much of it just waiting for things to be over!"); perhaps most importantly, the introduction of Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Chidi's colleague, foil, and eventual love interest. And the string of episodes after the gang learns the truth about the point system contains some of the show's absolute highlights, from Eleanor's anguish and fury when she realizes that her neglectful mother was capable of change, but not for her, to Chidi's collapse into nihilism in the face of learning the full extent of the universe's absurdity.

In rewatching the season before writing this essay, I was struck by Michael's character arc, and the way it mirrors both Eleanor's growth earlier in the show, and the core principles espoused by Chidi's touchstone text, T.M. Scanlon's What We Owe to Each Other. Michael starts out obsessed with saving the gang. "These four humans are all I care about in the universe", he tells his former boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), and later, when trying to justify his repeated interference in the humans' lives, he desperately exclaims to Janet that "this is all we have!" But when he realizes that the point system is fundamentally broken, something shifts for Michael. By the end of the season, he's angrily exclaiming at the committee that oversees the good place over their slowness to act in the face of his news: "Just so you know, the whole time you're doing this, the bad guys are continuing to torture everyone who ends up in the bad place. Which is everyone!" Ethics, in the show's world (and maybe also in ours), begin with the personal and expand to the universal. Eleanor's first truly selfless act came when she realized that keeping her secret in the first season was hurting Chidi. By the third season, she's the one arguing for the gang to ignore their immutable damnation and work to help others avoid the same fate.

Focusing so much on the personal makes sense for a television series, which after all tend to be rooted in their characters. But it doesn't sit entirely well with what the season eventually reveals about The Good Place's cosmology. A lot of people were excited by the show's confirmation that there is no ethical consumption (or rather, no ethical action) under capitalism. But am I the only person who was bothered by where the series chose to go from there?

It makes sense for Michael, while he still believes that the point system is being tampered with by the bad place, to argue that it needs to be reviewed and reformed. But after he realizes that it's not the point system, but the world that is broken, it's rather unclear what his proposed remedy is. Like so many others, I don't know what the correct response is to the realization that capitalism forces us to participate in the exploitation and immiseration of others. But I'm pretty sure that changing the definition of "good" so that it excludes these unintended but still very real negative consequences is not it. Yes, Michael's approach has a solid justification in that all humans who ever lived are being subjected to eternal torture, but surely the solution to that is to stop torturing, full stop, instead of trying to redefine the types of people who "deserve" to be tortured? At the very least, we've reached a point where the show's worldbuiding, with its focus on the afterlife, ceases to be useful as any sort of philosophical or ethical thought experiment.

Even the solution proposed by Michael and the gang—try to recreate the anomalous results of the first season by creating a new neighborhood, peopling it with new people who have failed to get into the good place, and demonstrating that they too can become better—raises some uncomfortable questions. "[Michael's] neighborhood gave us the chance to become better people because it removed all the variables that make life on Earth hard" Chidi explains, and Eleanor adds "there was no rent to pay, no racism, no sexism".

But, well, that's the point. Ethics doesn't—or rather, shouldn't—exist in a frictionless sphere. There's no point to learning how to be good in a world that doesn't exist. And conversely, what is the point of becoming a better person when you no longer have the ability to affect the world on any level but the most personal? How can you go from realizing that the world is broken to concluding that the best possible response is to remove people from it and put them in an artificial reality where that brokenness can no longer affect them?

Take, for example, Simone, who arrives at the new neighborhood at the end of the season, as part of Shawn's plot to undermine the experiment by making Chidi too nervous to interact with her and "help" her towards becoming a good person. But the thing is, Simone already was a good person. Everything we see of her in the season's early episodes shows her to be decent, kind, level-headed, and good-humored. Unless there are deep dark secrets buried in her past, the only reason a person like her wouldn't get into the good place is the fact that, like the rest of us, she participated in capitalism and indirectly caused the suffering of others. Which means that simply by existing in the new neighborhood, which is disconnected from the capitalist system and where there is no exploitation, Simone will start accumulating points on her own. This tells us nothing about ethics, or trying to be good in general.

Once you realize how limited the characters' approach is, you start to realize why the earlier parts of the season, back on earth, felt so awkward (and maybe that's an indication that you're meant to have this reaction, which the fourth season will build on, just as previous seasons have built on previous dissatisfied reactions to their worldbuilding). It was one thing for our heroes to live a post-scarcity, obligation-free afterlife in the first season. But the third season recreates that scenario in the allegedly real world, positing that four people with absolutely no reason to know or spend time with one another would drop everything to form a bizarre support group that takes up all of their time. Even if you account for Michael's interference in the humans' lives to make this happen (which continues when the pressures of real life threaten to tear the group apart, as when Eleanor's funds start running low), it's clear that this isn't a plausible set of actions.

More importantly, it isn't a particularly believable path towards enlightenment, not when every possible obstacle in the characters' path is swept (or, as Michael has it, snowplowed) aside before they can even notice it. It's easy—or at least, easier—to dedicate yourself to self-improvement when you have no financial constraints, no dependents, no immigration police chasing after you, no real contact with your old life and its complications. To its credit, the show acknowledges this. But its solution isn't to fix the world so that more people will have the wherewithal to work on themselves. It's that these specific people get to opt out of every difficulty inherent in living a good life except the ones rooted in their own personal hang-ups.

Again, the show has a justification for all these convolutions of plot, because it is trying to prevent a specific outcome: the four humans being tortured for all eternity. But I'm not sure you can introduce a concept as weighty as the fact that all of us are complicit in suffering and enslavement into your story, and continue to expect your audience to maintain its laser-like focus on four more-or-less privileged characters. Especially when you consider that "we're all complicit" is a rather glib pronouncement, one that ignores the profound inequalities imposed by capitalism. It's all very well and good for Jason to explain that his friend, who was burdened by family obligations, had no time to wonder whether the vegetables he bought in the supermarket were farmed by exploited workers, but what about those workers themselves? Are they doomed to the same torment as the people who thoughtlessly perpetuate their suffering?

There comes a point where focusing on your own self-improvement in the midst of a broken world becomes, in itself, an unethical act. Especially if that self-improvement is achieved by retreating from the world—as people who are lauded by the show as ethical do even before the idea of a new neighborhood is broached; Tahani goes to live in a remote monastery, and Doug Forcett (Michael McKean), the blueprint for ethical living, has gone so completely off the grid that he only drinks his own filtered waste. Once more, it is entirely possible that I was meant to have this reaction, and that in its fourth season, The Good Place will once again overturn everything we thought we had understood about its cosmology in a brilliant and completely satisfying way. But there has always been an uncomfortably neoliberal undertone to this show, down to the way that it boils ethics down to consumer choices, and I can't help but fear that it will end as it started, prioritizing the personal above all else. At this stage in the story, I'm not sure that would be the right thing to do.