[WARNING: These reviews contain spoilers and nerdy philosophical/theological references.]
The first season of The Good Place begins with death. Or more specifically, it begins with the beginning of the Afterlife in what seems to be Paradise for the ethically elite. The second season begins with Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence, a reboot into one’s own personal hell that gets repeated over eight hundred times. The third season opens not with reincarnation, but with the experience of near-death, which triggers radical, existential self-examination that leads toward the pursuit of becoming a better person. Things go downhill from there.
Radical conversion is a heralded part of American culture. It’s part of the immigrant “rags to riches” narrative, the story of transforming completely from who and how one was in the Old World to becoming someone self-made and better in the New. The concept is well-worn in religious terms, as well. The word “conversion” comes from the Latin convertere meaning “to turn completely”. Paul and the Four Evangelists of the New Testament often use the Greek word metanoia, a “changing of the mind” to describe a transformation of the self toward God. We see the personal conversion experience as essential in evangelical Christianity and Alcoholics Anonymous. In our culture’s arts and letters, it is rampant. The only thing we love more than a great conversion story is a conversion story full of failure. “Try again,” wrote Samuel Beckett. “Fail again. Fail better.”
Back on Earth, our show’s conversion stories full with failure begin now. Last season, we watched Eleanor stare shopping-cart death in the face until Michael pulls her to safety. Immediately, she has a conversion experience, realizing that she should become a better person. Finding it difficult, she backslides to her old ways. In Season Three, we see Chidi avert death-by-air-conditioner. He goes to Simone, the neurobiologist, for help and after experiencing natural science’s use of data analysis, thinks that all he has to do is to decide to be more decisive. Yet, reflecting upon his direct decisions, he takes as his fault the indirect contribution to others’ pain and suffering. Chidi backslides to his indecisiveness. Tahani’s conversion experience is to rid herself of all material possessions and celebrity connections, joining a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. There she is found by a VICE-like reporter and, backsliding, she later shills to a packed audience her book, Getting out of the Spotlight about “shedding your need for validation from others.” After Jason is freed from the safe, he converts to a life free from crime, wanting to become a top dance crew. After losing competition after competition, he, too, backslides.
Each of our human’s accidental deaths, byproducts of their way of being their most human and authentic selves, are played out by virtue of each life lived up to that moment. When Michael surreptitiously, yet directly interacts with the moments of their demise, he prevents them from becoming themselves actually into death. The Michael ex Machina establishes a supernatural trajectory for a new kind of flourishing that is established by their near-death experiences. In result, the four humans gain new agency and, in reflection about the specific moments of the possibility of their ends, they search for new meaning to become better people. Instead, they become new selves that fail in new ways. The very human failure to convert, to change their minds entirely and live consistently differently as better people, comes at the expense of their averted ends. They are all too human.
As the four return to their old ways, Michael sees that his interfering work has failed, much like how his scheme to torture them ultimately failed. On Earth, they unexpectedly become worse individually whereas before they unexpectedly become better together. Against the rules of The Judge, Michael deceives the frog-loving Doorman to let him return to Earth and again influence the life trajectories of our four humans. He’s just going to nudge Eleanor and Chidi together. Just nudgey-nudge, against Janet’s warnings. As a Sam-bartender, he sows the seed in Eleanor of “what do we owe other people?” As an badly-accented Aussie librarian, he tells Chidi the secret to get out of his head is to help someone else. As a fellow shyster, he plants guilt in Tahani and for Jason, as a talent scout, he offers a chance to start a dance crew in Australia. Instead of human conversion, we have otherworldly intervention. It’s Touched by an Angel, Quantum Leap, and Highway to Heaven. It’s the insipid God Friended Me. The list of television shows go on and on. Except where those lives got better, on The Good Place, these lives get worse and all the more human and therefore better.
Like all sitcoms, The Good Place is a sitcom about moral anxiety. Aristophanes, Western Civilization’s greatest sitcom writer ever, robed these anxieties in the clothing of the day. The anxieties of gender and war in Lysistrata, of national identity and purpose in The Frogs, of government and society in The Birds. What to do and how to do it? How did we get here and where do we go from here? And all with a knowing laugh and a bittersweet taste on clucking of tongues. In Aristophanes, people rarely die, but they remain stuck living with the dread of Athenian life as the Spartans march ever closer.
The Good Place succeeds because it wraps in clever writing and absurdist antics our foundational questions and conversations about identity, desire, and choice. But it has tackled these questions through the lens of formal philosophy within the safe space of eternity. Its hook is that everyone is already dead. So, everything is about being and nothing is about time. That’s enough to catch our attention, but what keeps us watching is that The Good Place takes as its premise up front the shared notion of ultimate (and arguably timeless) concerns and goes from there. What are we doing and how do we do it? To state the obvious absence in this series, God is never considered or mentioned in these questions.
Opposed to before when he worked entirely with philosophers, through his relationship with Simone, Chidi now adds natural science and data analysis of the brain. During all of this, he latches on to the idea that “we choose to be good because of our bonds to other people” and he wants to pursue understanding that shared bond of near-death through a combination of philosophy and natural science. We can guess that, as a moral philosopher, Chidi’s deep understanding of the philosophy of science from before Aristotle through at least Thomas Kuhn is not that strong. But this new twist offers us something very Platonic at St. John’s University: the first two seasons of the show were arguably in a world of forms and we are now in the material world. Science and the scientific method is the language of this world, not abstract thought and ideas. As The Doorman warns, Michael has no power here.
And neither does Trevor, the new fifth member of the group. Trevor and Michael must act as competing demon and angel to affect in only human ways human lives. All of this occurs under the negligent eye of the partially impartial Gen, The Judge. But is this cosmos all that it seems? Are the four really on Earth or is it something beyond The Bad and Good Places? Where does that Bridge at the beginning of the episode really lead to? The bad puns and accents are alive and well in this Australia. Is it really The Land Down Under or is it a Hell all its own? What extra layer has Gen added to this all too human comedy? Third time’s the charm, I guess. But I’m not converted, yet.