Friday, February 3, 2017

The Good Place: Secular Salvation on the Boob Toob

Kristen Bell and Ted Danson in The Good Place
The first episode of Michael Schur’s sitcom The Good Place commences with Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) waking up in a waiting room. There is soft Muzak playing, the walls are very beige, and the surroundings are altogether nondescript. Before the first commercial, Michael (Ted Danson), who calls himself “the architect,” informs Eleanor that she has died and is in… well, not Heaven. As the title says, it’s just The Good Place. Eleanor blandly responds: “Cool.”

This sets the entire season’s tone. Michael introduces Eleanor to what he calls “the neighborhood,” a very Southern California development of stucco walls, landscaped parklands, and interminable frozen yogurt shops. Though the neighborhood population is aggressively international and racially integrated, is afterlife reflects an exceedingly Caucasian vision of safety and inoffensiveness. It’s the kind of place where people who can afford the buy-in feel virtuous because they don’t have to make choices or do anything.

So okay, the story unfolds from there, but pause, because the background matters. Michael informs Eleanor that she earned salvation by saving innocent Death Row convicts and undertaking humanitarian missions to war-ravaged lands, and her reward, apparently, is a brightly painted dingbat cottage in Orange County. No presence of God, no reunion with the Brahma, no answers to eternal questions; in this afterlife, those who bettered the world live like those who fled it post-WWII.

There’s a small step between suggesting we’re saved into a life of eternal blandness, and saying we’re saved for living a life of eternal blandness. The widespread adoption of religious language and religious trappings in suburban America correlates strongly with increasing economic segregation. Having grown up in a succession of blandly Caucasian suburbs, including some in Southern California, I’ve noticed that these communities, heavily planned and often erected hastily, always reserve land for some churches.

Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto in The Good Place
The Good Place aired its first nine episodes during the 2016 general election campaign, when the political parties forced Americans to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, two different manifestations of the white establishment: conventional politics versus conventional money. They represented the sort of white communities that dwell within the suburbs constructed for this show. Despite the much-reported urban/rural divide that fired the electorate, both were essentially suburban candidates offering a secular salvation.

Importantly, both represented an appeal to the past: Clinton to the squeaky-clean 1990s, when her husband was President, and Trump to whenever America was great before. They spoke words about the present, Clinton about inequality and Trump about… um, burning cities or whatever (his present is mired in 1977). But both offered Americans an all-expenses-paid trip to the beatified past that probably happened, in someone’s imagination, just before their respective voting bases needed full-time jobs.

Back in 1948, French philosopher and former Nazi resister Jacques Ellul wrote that many people seek to impose order through drafting moral laws, not because they want everybody else to be good, but because they want to make themselves good. If laws compel moral goodness, we don’t have to make choices. We see this, arguably, with religious conservatives who demand sweeping morality laws requiring people to be good. These laws save anyone from making choices.

The Good Place, however, deals entirely with characters who need to make choices: the sinner who needs to atone posthumously, the celebutante whose motivations don’t match her actions, the moral philosopher whose entire mortal life was characterized by indecision. They’ve always deferred choices, in their own ways. In the season’s final scenes, they’re cornered into making some choice, any choice, and still cannot. Which is the problem with any secular salvation: we’re stuck with ourselves.

Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper in The Good Place
Spoiler alert. Watching the first episode of The Good Place, I watched Eleanor, the doomed sinner who achieves Heaven by bureaucratic error, and thought: she’s in Hell. Much like when I’m dragged to a party and want to leave, but somebody else drove, Eleanor is in a place she doesn’t belong, and can’t escape. In the final episode, we discover that’s literally true. This vision of secular salvations is, secretly, Eleanor’s version of eternal damnation.

And ours too. As we discover the central characters’ histories through flashback, we realize these characters, in various ways, tried to save themselves: through reason, through action, through force, or through numbing life away. From the first episode, this series avoids specific religious statements, but in the resolution, we have one clear moral: we cannot save ourselves. These characters tried, failed, and kept trying. Our votes, moral outrages, and inoffensive lifestyles will ultimately fail likewise.

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