‘The Good Place’ Tackles Tech and Spiritual Anxiety in the Modern Age

At the tail end of last year, showrunner Michael Schur released his follow up to Parks and Recreation: The Good Place. The Good Place follows the newly deceased Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) who winds up in a doctor’s office-esque waiting room in what she’ll soon learn is a version of Heaven. Though the wall across from her urges her to believe “EVERYTHING IS FINE” in gloriously green letters, we soon find out that everything is not fine. In fact, Eleanor doesn’t really belong here–she ended up in Heaven by mistake.

In an America that has Christians fearing for their religious freedom and scientists receiving pushback from the political right, The Good Place presents itself as a strangely clerical, bureaucratic view of our cultural norms about Heaven and Hell. There’s not a Heaven or Hell, persay, but there is a Good Place and a Bad Place, and a firm of “architects” that gets to design them. Whether you end up in the Good Place or the Bad Place is determined by a formula that weighs every decision you make with a numerical value. There is an often-malfunctioning assistant named “Janet” who can be called whenever a dead person needs anything from a snack to a pornography recommendation, and you can view your memories on a screen, as if streaming them from the Netflix of your memory. Though The Good Place is about themes usually associated with our spiritual lives, it presents that life in a technological language, referencing algorithms rather than Bibles, and numbers rather than feelings. 

Source: LA Times
Source: LA Times

Figuring out how The Good Place fits contextually among TV sitcoms has been difficult; it follows the sitcom traditions tonally, with plenty of quick humor and laughably-lovable characters, but unlike other sitcoms on TV (and unlike Parks before it), The Good Place doesn’t have the familiar workplace setting, or the understanding of sameness and status quo as the end-of-the-episode goal. The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber noted that The Good Place fits contextually in TV’s current “metaphysical moment,” where shows about multiple realities prevail, noting that among the country’s declining Christian communities and various spiritual crises, The Good Place is a “secular take on the promise of the divine.”

[These] works [come] from the marriage of intellectual process and mystical escape,” he explains, “the appealing implication is not only that there is another place, but that we can understand what it is and how to get there.”

When both religion and the tech revolution are hardwired into our country’s DNA, it can be tempting to, well, hardwire death. Even back in September, reviewers were calling The Good Place a sci-fi show, noting the usual constraints of sitcoms were stretched to accommodate an unusual premise. Sci-fi as a genre generally steers clear of fantasy elements and focuses on futuristic or near-futuristic technological advances, and usually holds that the humans in the world will be in conflict with that technology somehow.

The Good Place doesn’t contain any technical science fiction elements, but Eleanor and her friends interact with the alternate reality in ways that express our society’s tech anxieties to a T. Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the Good Place, becomes quickly frustrated and depressed as he tries to find the grain of sand causing his perfect neighborhood design to go south, reminding any of us of our programmer friends who have spent hours into the night trying to scour for the misplaced semi-colon in their code that’s making every piece of text on their app appear bold. D’Arcy Carden plays Janet less like a helpful afterlife servant, and more like a hilarious anthropomorphized Siri who iPhone users will recognize quickly for her inability to carry out the simple tasks she was built to do. Technical language is used to describe all manner of malfunctions in the neighborhood: Janet is referred to as a “robot” even though she insists she isn’t, Michael “tinkers” with the “algorithm” as if he’s an AV Club kid actually tinkering with a robotic mechanism in his classroom, and throughout the season characters perform tasks just so they can enhance their goodness scores much in the vein of posting a facebook photo just for the likes. Over at Inverse, writer Matt Kim notes that the point system used to determine a person’s overall goodness and badness lifts almost directly from that of video games:

Games like Mass Effect, BioShock, and Fallout give players the chance to make personal decisions based on a sliding scale of good and evil. If a player chooses to, let’s say, murder an innocent person for an in-game reward, that decision will negatively impact the character’s karma. This makes a pretty strong case that The Good Place takes place in a world where human life is a simulation. There’s a good chance their world follows the same system of data-crunching algorithms that grade its participants based on a preprogramed set of rules. It’s why arbitrary values are added to actions like +1.04 points for eating a sandwich, or -3994.96 points for poisoning a river. While the correlating morality of the points make sense on paper, they follow traditional assumptions about what constitutes good and bad behavior.

Numerical System in the Good Place. Source: Inverse.
Numerical System in the Good Place. Source: Inverse.

Both Kim and Kornhaber wrote their analyses before The Good Place hit its spectacular season finale, “Michael’s Gambit,” but the analysis holds up even with the unexpected turn. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) After Eleanor and her friends seek to convince Shawn, an all-seeing all-powerful and entirely-logic based “judge” who retreats from the slightest emotion (hi, modern tech anxiety) that she belongs here, they end up in a huge argument which causes Eleanor to realize that they’re not even in the Good Place at all–they’re in the Bad Place, and they have been the whole time.

The sinister giggle that Ted Danson gives tells us at once that Eleanor was right and that this is a huge forking deal. Everything’s going to change now–and almost immediately it does. Michael snaps his fingers in Eleanor’s face, erasing the team’s memories and starting the project over from scratch. The tension-building ending sequence where Eleanor starts her new posthumous life all over again ends with our problematic-but-lovable heroine realizing she’s terribly alone and that something is terribly wrong. We, the audience, are hit with a realization that all good sci-fi has at one point or another: The technology has beat us, and now it’s time to fight back.

Prior to the finale, The Good Place poked fun at our technological anxieties while marrying them to our spiritual ones, using plenty of comedic relief to placate us. But after the finale, The Good Place gives way to a more terrifying premise for it’s second season. The reasons we are afraid of technology, or even just easily frustrated by it, are the same reasons we’re afraid of spirituality, religion, and God. We don’t fully understand them, and yet they are the forces at work that we’re told should guide our lives. The Good Place makes the case that the coldly calculative technological view of goodness and badness and the emotionally-motivated view of personal success and relationship building, both of which are strong focuses of the show, are actually based in the same root anxiety of lacking control. Michael’s shift from straight-laced angelic architect to a calculative chaos demon in one devious grin embodies the combination of these fears. Luckily, Eleanor knows her mission: Find Chidi. Here’s hoping she can figure out everything else along the way.

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