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The Good Place: The narrative scope and morality

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

The Good Place has to be the most impressive show I've seen within the last few years. If anyone reading this article hasn't seen the show, I strongly recommend doing so before continuing. The show is prone to rather dull jokes and inconsistent rules, but when I watch or read any media, I focus on what aspects about it I WANT to stick with me, and The Good Place has quite a few strong ideas, some of which I wish to discuss here.

Live, learn, rewind

For anyone who has seen the show, they know that the best the show has ever been is during the first half of season 2. The characters were in an endless circle of starting at the "good place", learning about its true nature, and being rebooted. The show kicked itself into the next gear in a way I believe only few shows ever do (most obvious example being Rick & Morty). Most media tends to distribute the weightage of all actions that are performed on-screen, more or less, evenly throughout the runtime of the show, but we all know that there is nothing like the first experience of anything. For that reason, for an entire season, we live with the characters slowly learning to be better people, only for us to realise that the scope is so much bigger than these four dealing with technical mistakes made by the afterlife system. The show suddenly becomes about Michael being trapped in a hellish loop, where he is always outsmarted by the humans. More than being outsmarted, the most surprising this to happen in his hell is that the four people always become better than they were.

I'd like to relate this to one of my favourite stories, Life is Strange. In a few sequences, we are given certain goals we have to achieve, the consequences to which can be varied. In a specific example, when confronting a drug dealer to get certain information, you could end up sweet-talking him (depending on your decisions relating to him earlier), cause him to get hurt, have to kill his dog (if you haven't done so earlier), or have to kill him. The failure outcome is having your friend get killed. For Michael, The Good Place is seeing her die no matter what you do. Or, it is like Phil being slapped by Rita over and over again.

When developing a story, writers are told that the purpose of any scene is to develop the characters and the plot. In an orthodox story, the consequences of the first timeline would have resulted in some residual information that would have led to the characters solving the crisis, but it only leads to Michael rebooting the humans again. This execution could have been mucked up REALLY easily, but the writers backed up their story by presenting Michael as the central character during this arc. This becomes a transitional period for the show to go from becoming about ethics as they exist, to a show about challenging the status quo of ethics.

These rewinds actually do something much more important than just being a big shift of the narrative scope for the audience. This is truly impressive characterisation. Now, through each reboot, we know what circumstances lead to what events. We truly can experience every branch here on out, to see what each character would do differently, but much more interestingly, to see what each character would do the same. Every simulation ends with Eleanor (or Jason) realising that they're in the bad place, and we see each time that Eleanor is truly the most observant, pragmatic, and self-aware character. This not only characterises her for future plots, where she is the brains of most of their operations, but also, it puts into perspective her nihilistic behaviour in the past. Eleanor was all about immediate gratification, and her intelligence and social awareness did not get realised thanks to her menial understanding of life, and more importantly, death.

In every single timeline, Chidi always helps Eleanor become a better person as well. This also presents us with an alternative to the idea of nurture vs. nature. Now, we can say that our nature is not something we're simply born with, but something that was developed in the living world. The people that these four have become on earth cannot be reversed. Every time Chidi helps Eleanor, it is thanks to his moral sense developed on earth, and Michael cannot change that in his simulations, which is why he was doomed to fail.

No one deserves the good place

Another strong point that the show has presented us with is that conventional morality is no longer applicable in the world. Every time we make a decision, we're truly making hundreds of decisions, most of which damage others. Through an example given in the show, we see one man, hundreds of years ago bringing roses to his grandmother and being rewarded for his thoughtful behaviour, and another man, today, being punished for it, since his action NOW has indirectly led to the suffering of many. These were consequences he never really intended. While on the other side of the coin, someone like Tahani is also punished despite being charitable, since her motivations were corrupt. We see here that conventional morality is a terrible combination of intentionality and consequentialism that no one today can adhere to.

The show gives us someone like Doug Forcett, a man who has lived a perfectly selfless life, but he doesn't get to go to the good place either, since being selfless now has way more barriers than it ever did. That is kind of the reason that today, we celebrate even small acts of selflessness. We know that it is much harder now.

Essentially, the show uses a soft magic system for world-building. I love these way more than hard magic systems since these are more about the theme and narrative than a cohesive world. Similarly, to me, The Good Place is not about a stupid afterlife system based on points, it is a metaphor for the complications in morality, and the concept of becoming a better person. The Good Place is far from my favourite shows, but it is one that I recommend more than any other for its exceptionally strong ideas which, at the very least, will stick with you for quite some time.

There are way more themes in the show that I would like to tackle in the future, such as Michael's realisation on the trolley problem, the motivation for being truly selfless, and the idea of our deaths and afterlife being nothing more than bureaucratic elements.

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