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How 'The Good Place' Can Teach Us All To Become Better People

No matter how overwhelming the world may prove to be, we are all capable of self-improvement

06/02/2018 17:05 GMT | Updated 06/02/2018 17:05 GMT
Colleen Hayes/NBC
Colleen Hayes/NBC

The Good Place is the godsend sitcom the world desperately needed. In the ugly times we’re living in, a brutish Trumpian society where the boundaries of common sense are constantly being pushed to near-absurd levels, this show provides a much-needed relief - one that is both comic and intellectual, but above all of the heart. Riveting from start to finish, it provides a perfect blend of comedy, suspense, philosophical metafiction, sheer out-there insanity, and poignancy. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. It’s the best thing TV has given us in a long time.

Now, the article from here onwards is aimed for people who’ve seen the season two finale, and contains spoilers aplenty. For all the others, I repeat, just go watch the show. It’s eight-and-a-half hours of pure joy, doable in a weekend Netflix binge. I’ve pretty much been sceptical of almost every sitcom post-Friends, so you can trust me when I say you won’t regret it.

The last episode, with its shocker ‘back-to-life’ twist, provided a moment of great entertainment value which is bound to keep us brimming with anticipation as we await the return of season three. Most of all, however, it summed up what the underlying theme of this show truly is: the question of how we can ever be good, and what the point is in doing so. It left me, and likely millions of other viewers, with a heart-warming sensation, as we see Eleanor being given another shot at a life which quite frankly just hadn’t been kind to her. We want her to do well, not only because we’re rooting for her place in heaven, but because we see the capacity she has for being ‘good.’ In the real world, a near-death experience alone sufficed as a prompt for making her a more selfless person; yet it is her journey in the afterlife alongside three other humans, a demon, and an anthropomorphic search engine, which ultimately offers us all a message on how we can become better people.

To begin with, what is clear from the characters, most prominently Eleanor and Tahani, is that they all have reasons for the flaws they possess. The former was raised in a dysfunctional, uncaring family, with a direct parallel being established between her childhood experiences and her adult behaviour. The flashback scene where she buys her own birthday cake, a result of her parents’ chronic forgetfulness, is mirrored by the cold attitude she shows her co-workers upon celebrating her 29th. It is clear that Eleanor’s jaded, anti-social selfishness is a defence-mechanism borne to shield her from the pain of feeling unloved. In the case of Tahani, a lifetime being overshadowed by her sister and ignored by her parents left a scar which, while only subtly hinted to, is deeply present. Upon the Judge’s challenge in the penultimate episode, she resists the urge of hearing what people think of her, except the very parents whose opinions still matter so dearly. It is no mystery how her lifelong quest for admiration and self-validation developed.

We won’t always be rewarded for it, but the most beautiful part of being human is that, in spite of having all the odds stacked against us, we’ve still retained the capacity to do good

Anyone watching the series will likely sympathise with the characters’ defects, feeling indignant at the way in which they are so repeatedly referred to as “bad” people. “But what about their awful life experiences? Doesn’t that excuse them?” The show provides us with an answer: however much we may have explanations for the negative things we do in life, at the end, we are always going to be the ones held accountable. In season one, upon deciding whether to trade her friends’ fate for a comfortable existence at Mindy St Clair’s, Eleanor comes to a moment of self-realisation: “I’ve been using [my family’s] crappy parenting as an excuse for my selfish behaviour all my life. No more.” In “The Burrito” episode, Tahani, after yielding to the temptation of seeking her parents’ approval for one last time, finally comprehends that to spend life in search for validation is futile, because you will never be able to please everyone. The message is clear – past experiences are in the past. However much they can haunt us to this day, we are the ones who have the power to determine our present. We could let them dominate us or try to fight them back, but ultimately the only way forward is to accept them for what they are. Clearly, this is easier said than done, but being aware of this is the first step towards self-liberation. A life of egocentric isolation won’t evoke a parental love that never was, neither will a narcissistic quest for mass adoration replace years of feeling ignored. Every time we use painful memories as an excuse for bad behaviour, we are only letting them tighten their grip on us a little further.

Even more important than this, however, is the question of how we can begin to do good in the first place, or why even try. The Judge makes a clear point: on earth, there is no ‘moral dessert.’ More often than not, there is no reward for ethical behaviour. Given our innate desire for self-preservation, doesn’t ‘selflessness’ appear to be against our very nature? One of the key paradoxes of the show remains the question of how Michael, an all-evil demonic being, ended up becoming quintessentially ‘good.’

There is no easy answer for this. To begin with, we already have difficulty defining what it means to be ‘good,’ or even if there is such thing as an objective, universal morality in the first place. How can we ever try to be something when we aren’t even sure of what it is?

The show doesn’t attempt to respond to the impossible. Rather, it leaves us with a consideration. As humans, whatever our background, we all share the same condition: we are all born, and we all die. Upon realising that we are ultimately in this same boat together, the only real choice we have is to nurture the relationships that keep us strong along the way, the very ones which prevent us from reverting to our myopic, self-serving instincts. As Chidi expounds, on the basis of T. M. Scanlon’s ’What we owe to each other, it is the inner affection we feel for others that motivates us to be good. For this reason alone, in the face of adversity, four humans and even a devil himself managed to become better people, as a result of being friends. It is from the intrinsic flaws that we are born with that a need to bond and confide in others emerges - and this is the most tragic beauty of being human.

We can all see a bit of ourselves in the main characters. There are some whom we resemble to a greater degree than others, but they all represent the imperfections in every one of us. There is no one who will watch this show without having a moment where they stop and think “gosh, that really reminds me of what I do.” We can all be selfish like Eleanor, vainglorious like Tahani, stubborn and indecisive like Chidi, or even just plain stupid like Jason. This is why we connect with them so much. Because deep down, we all know we’d be going to the ‘bad place’ too. But these characters remind us of what can truly save us - our ability to love and care for others.

As humans, we can sometimes feel disconcerted at the dreadfulness we are capable of. We have tortured each other since the beginning of time, we’ve committed the worst atrocities imaginable, we are destroying the planet in front of our very eyes. At times being kind can feel impossible, as if we are battling our very own nature, one which is destined to make us evil. But the reality is that, no matter how selfish our genes or awful our life experiences, we are capable of love and compassion. We may not always receive it, but we can always feel it – and that is something no one can ever take away from us. No matter how overwhelming the world may prove to be, we are all capable of self-improvement. We won’t always be rewarded for it, but the most beautiful part of being human is that, in spite of having all the odds stacked against us, we’ve still retained the capacity to do good.