‘The Good Place’s Optimism Is a Salve for Despair in the Trump Era
On Thursday, January 19, 2017, the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration, I found myself filled with dread about the weeks, months, and years to come. His cabinet’s Senate confirmation hearings had begun, and many of Trump’s appointees appeared uninformed about and unqualified to run the departments they are slated to lead. Later in the day, news broke about potential federal budget cuts that would reduce or wholly eliminate programs dedicated to supporting the arts, defending civil rights, fighting climate change, and preventing violence against women. I came home from work, talked to my husband, and cried, paralyzed with fear about the future of the country I love.
Then I put on The Good Place.
The series follows Eleanor Shellstrop, an extraordinarily rude, self-centered person who dies and goes to the heavenly Good Place due to, she believes, a clerical error. (There are spoilers to follow.) Eleanor keeps this a secret from most but confides in her designated soul mate, Chidi Anagonye, an academic who studied philosophy while alive. Rather than expose the mistake, which could doom Eleanor to the demonic Bad Place, Chidi aims to help her rightfully earn her spot in the Good Place. He begins teaching her daily ethics lessons, and the show tracks her growth as she builds relationships, develops a stronger conscience, and eventually, in an act of selflessness, confesses to Good Place’s architect, Michael, that she does not belong. When Eleanor is faced with the threat of expulsion to the Bad Place, she escapes to a Medium Place to plot her next move. She soon learns that Chidi will be sent to the Bad Place in her stead if she does not return.
In the finale, Eleanor returns to the Good Place to save Chidi and assume her rightful, if troubling, spot in the Bad Place — only to discover that the Good Place is not, in fact, that good of a place. As it turns out, the Good Place is the Bad Place in disguise, part of an elaborate, insidious psychological experiment devised by Michael, which he hopes will torture Eleanor and her new friends for 1000 years.
After learning of Michael’s sinister intentions, Eleanor confronts him. She doesn’t cower or bargain, but stands tall and affirms the values that she’s come to embrace. “You thought we would torture each other,” she says. “And we did for a little. But we also took care of each other. We improved each other. And the four of us became a team. So the only thing you succeeded in doing was bringing us all together.” When Michael vows to erase their memories and proceed with a second round of his sadistic experiment, Eleanor replies, “Do your worst. We figured it out once. We can do it again.”
I’m not sure when The Good Place creator and writer Mike Schur learned this episode would air on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. (Was the placement of “My Way” in the finale’s opening scene the day before Trump danced to it at his inaugural ball really just accidental synchronicity?) But whether Schur wrote it with Trump in mind or not, the timing couldn’t have been more appropriate. Eleanor’s strength, optimism, and resolve against the embodiment of evil are instructive. She reads the book What We Owe to Each Other, about our ethical obligations to others, throughout the series, and her words and actions advocate collaboration and solidarity. She provides a model of what people are capable of, even when under attack.
Through Eleanor (and the supporting cast), The Good Place is asserting, loudly: Humanity can call upon our greater instincts. We can be defiant in the face of evil. We can change, surprise ourselves, and find a capacity for good we didn’t know we had within us. We can take risks and sacrifice for the betterment of society. We can rise to the challenge.
After the past presidential election, I wasn’t sure if we could, or would, rise to this particular challenge of defending our values — and the policies aligned with them — while our democracy is threatened by an authoritarian-style leader who praised dictators, declared a war against the press, and bragged about sexual assault. It prompted a kind of existential crisis in me about who we are as a nation and where we’re headed in the future.
But The Good Place inspires an optimistic view of human nature where even the most selfish people can be compelled by an appeal to their honesty, compassion, humility, and commitment to help others. Eleanor defends not only her friends but also the core values she’s come to appreciate — the same core values that define America and are currently under attack. The show lays the groundwork to resist bigotry and hatred by promoting the idea that people can and should band together in solidarity against an enemy. This type of solidarity is transformative, and the impossible suddenly becomes possible.
It’s naïve to think that good will always triumph over evil, and I can think of countless examples where evil has prevailed. I know the resistance against Trump will suffer defeats and losses. But just like Michael misunderstands the power of the human spirit in The Good Place, Trump also underestimates the power of the people when acting collectively. We forge bonds, we sacrifice, we help each other. These values are at the core of our humanity. If the Women’s Marches around the country (and around the world) are any indication, we have hope. We are resilient.
The Good Place transcends being a half-hour sitcom and becomes something greater, a work of art and a restorative salve for the weary, the defeated, the down-hearted. It shows us a model of what’s possible and inspires us to fulfill our potential for the better. When the Trump administration promotes a poisonously dark and frightening view of our fellow citizens, The Good Place can be its antidote.