Matters of laugh and death: Imagining ‘The Good Place’ [column] – LancasterOnline

Posted: May 4, 2020 at 8:42 am

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Do you think about heaven and hell?

Most people at some point weigh the merits of preparing for a potential afterlife, and for those in the Western world who ultimately believe in such things, conceptions of heaven and hell tend to follow a basic, traditional script: A reward awaits good people perhaps a reunion with loved ones or face time with a deity and punishment awaits the bad. The perks and punitive measures in these respective camps are said to last an eternity.

Folks often disagree about the path one takes to these final destinations. People of different religious faiths and cultural traditions argue over who sends whom where, and why. In certain circles, conversations about the afterlife can turn testy on a dime. Passing on, it seems, is no laughing matter.

That is, unless youre Michael Schur, the Emmy-Award winning writer and producer behind The Office, Parks and Recreation and, most recently, The Good Place, the just-wrapped NBC sitcom about heaven, hell and the many train stops in between.

Schur has a knack for wringing laughter out of otherwise mirthless topics (e.g., office politics, existential anxiety) and delivering some breathtaking moments of clarity along the way.

The Good Place, which concluded its fourth and final season in January, follows four lost souls as they wake up in what they think is heaven, known simply as The Good Place. This young, attractive quartet consists of Eleanor Shellstrop (played by the irresistible Kristen Bell), a self-described hottie who has perfected the art of uncharitable ego; Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), a moral philosophy professor suffering from analysis paralysis; Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), a sincere but hapless drug dealer and wannabe DJ; and Tahani Al-Jamil (British actress Jameela Jamil), a socialite and philanthropist with jealousy issues.

Immortal being Michael (the ageless Ted Danson) helps them acclimate to their new eternal surroundings, but neither Michael nor The Good Place are what they seem.

This hit show proves endlessly inventive, with a flourish of comedic gimmicks including the prohibition of swearing for Good Place residents. Eleanor persistently attempts to flout this rule, but her four-letter words always come out wrong, generating such head-turning T-shirt slogans as Holy Motherforking Shirtballs. ( sells the shirts for $20.95.)

These types of philosophical fart jokes grease the skids for some of the headiest material ever to appear in a network television sitcom.

Indeed, the shows greatest achievement is its ability to make viewers laugh while engaging them in a focused discussion of what makes people fundamentally good or bad.

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In each episode of The Good Place, the moral of the story is never in doubt because Chidi, the ethics professor, literally spells it out on a chalkboard.

The long list of intellectual luminaries from whom the shows writers quote and borrow material includes French philosopher and writer Jean Paul Sartre (Schur says he drew inspiration for the first season of The Good Place from Sartres play No Exit, which famously asserts hell is other people); Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard; German philosopher and poet Friedrich God is dead Nietzsche; and especially Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher who tried to cement the bond between reasoning and morality.

The series wades into some stout metaphysical territory by noting that what happens in The Good Place, over time, starts to look more like what happens in The Bad Place.

The show addresses the notion that eternity gets old, and always getting what you want is its own form of torture. Wanting for nothing kills passion, fun and even love. We recognize joy only because we can experience its absence, which cant happen in The Good Place.

Depicting heaven as a joyless prison takes brass, especially in a predominantly Judeo-Christian America desperately clinging to its nominal moral authority.

Regardless of whether NBC executives knew what they were signing on to with The Good Place, the show paid dividends in viewership. Millions of loyal fans tuned in every week (and still do; the show is available on Netflix and Comcast OnDemand), indicating some in the general population are ready to entertain challenges to their traditional views.

In the end, The Good Place not so subtly suggests we create afterlife mythology to give ourselves more time with the people we love. In life, time blows by too quickly and we need, if not eternity, then at least a reasonable extension to make good on our relationships.

If The Good Place writers are right, and heaven is just a myth, our time on Earth becomes especially important because it is the only time we get.

What an incredible responsibility that would be: No future prizes or penalties, just this fleeting, fragile now, and its up to us to make it heaven or hell.

Matters of Life and Death is a monthly column that examines issues associated with death and dying. It runs the first Sunday of the month in the Living section. Michael Long is a staff editor and writer for LNP | LancasterOnline. Email your stories, comments and suggestions to

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Matters of laugh and death: Imagining 'The Good Place' [column] - LancasterOnline

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