Tele Talk: In examining ethical dilemmas, ‘The Good Place’ reminds us all to extend empathy

A graphic of "The Good Place" characters Michael and Eleanor sitting side by side on a mustard yellow couch. Michael (left) wears glasses, a dark blue blazer, a bowtie, light blue pants and brown shoes. Eleanor wears a blue shirt, navy pants and white shoes.
Graphic by Nina Potischman

This article contains spoilers.

Imagine if the action of eating a banana every morning was steadily earning you a place in hell. On the surface, the fruit is cost-effective and nutritious, but it also represents the exploitation of farmworkers and environmental degradation via pesticides and transportation fumes.

This type of moral dilemma drives the premise of NBC’s sitcom “The Good Place.” During your lifetime, actions that benefit society earn you points, while detrimental actions will result in a loss of points.

When you die, your points are summed to determine whether or not you gain entry to a pseudo-heaven — the “Good Place” — a land where puppies can be conjured in an instant. If you miss the mark, you are doomed to a life of eternal damnation.

It’s the butterfly effect, but on steroids. In this fictional world, life is so black-and-white that the most seemingly inconsequential actions carry monumental weight.

It is also the same ideology that comes under fire in the show’s third season, when shallow and conceited Eleanor (Kristen Bell), choice-averse ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), philanthropic ego-socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and criminally ignorant aspiring DJ Jason (Manny Jacinto) prove themselves to be truly decent, loving individuals worthy of redemption.  

In the first season, the characters delve into a flurry of ethical dilemmas as they navigate feeling like they don’t belong in the Good Place, only to have their suspicions confirmed — they were set for the Bad Place all along.

However, after the characters prove they can become better people, they are given a second chance in the next season as they are dropped back on Earth to see if they can improve their scores enough to gain entry into the real Good Place.

Throughout the seasons, they confront moral, ethical questions through the study of philosophers such as Kant, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates.

But what’s most humbling about the show is how it subverts the gravity of these schools of thought and emphasizes how inapplicable they can be to everyday life.

The all-knowing and all-seeing judge who determines who gets into the Good Place chows down on burritos while binge-watching NCIS in her free time. The key that unlocks Earth’s dimension is attached to a bubblegum machine frog keychain. The conduit at which all planes of existence merge in time and space is called the Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes, or IHOP.

Not only do these visuals infuse a funny, almost phantasmal quality to the afterlife, they also bring into question the seriousness with which we consider death’s judgment. The point system that makes value judgments on actions removes points for ridiculous “offenses” such as rooting for the New York Yankees or using Facebook as a verb.

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Much like our economy and our political sphere, the after-death system of “The Good Place” universe is deeply flawed. It hasn’t admitted anyone to the Good Place in more than 500 years, emphasizing how hard, and more accurately, impossible, it is to achieve ethical purity. The writers harness the superficiality in condemning these social sins to demonstrate that morality is subjective.

Furthermore, “The Good Place” hones in on the fact that sometimes it’s just damn hard to be moral and mortal. The judge, played by Maya Rudolph, takes a brief trip to Earth to understand what human life is like. She disappears for two seconds only to return exasperated, frantically concluding that “Earth is a mess, y’all … it’s hot and it’s crowded, but somehow also cold and lonely.”

The show also tackles how socioeconomic status can hinder one’s ability to prosper and act with moral intent. Rudolph says, “Also, I guess I’m black? And they do not like black ladies down there.”

Whereas before she briskly asserts that people should simply stop being lazy and research their bananas, she eventually comes to understand that life is complicated and messy, sometimes too chaotic for one to even fathom the moral repercussions of their groceries.

It’s a familiar story that viewers of “The Good Place” can empathize with. It begs the question of whether or not we should even be focusing on “good” and “bad.” If anything, the strict delineation between good and bad is futile and dated, because what it means to be a good person — or rather the privilege it takes to be a good person — is so nuanced.

By forcing people into fixed categories, we as a culture subscribe to moral righteousness, ignoring our innate tendency to act with both virtue and selfishness. Perhaps then, “The Good Place” implies that staking one’s ego in goodness is the same as laying faith in an arbitrary points system.  

One could argue that the constantly changing setting and cliff hangers are meant to incite praise or infuse shock factor to a tedious subject like philosophy. But the true value is in recognizing how fluid goodness is.

The idea that one’s reality could be “rebooted,” as Eleanor’s, Chidi’s, Tahani’s and Jason’s are time and time again, represents a willingness in humans to adapt and evolve to unforeseen circumstances and hardship. Instead of condemning the main characters for their often greedy or foolish acts, “The Good Place” extends empathy that we should give to our own peers. It espouses that we should treat each day like a reboot: as time to reinvent ourselves.

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Amber Chong SC ’22 is TSL’s TV columnist. She probably spends too much time daydreaming, but will come back to Earth to fight you for the last slice of cake.

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