Critical Utopia in "The Good Place"
Written by Caitlyn Dark, graduate student in English Literary Studies at The University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Keywords: the good place, afterlife, utopian settings, dystopian realities
WARNING: Contains spoilers for the TV show The Good Place.
First aired in 2016, the NBC sitcom The Good Place had captured the imagination of fans and casual viewers alike with its fantastical and philosophical take on the basic human question of “what does it mean to be good?”
Determining a “Good Place” Metric
The first season opens on one of our main characters, Eleanor Shellstrop, sitting in a waiting room and looking at a decal on the wall that simply states, “Welcome! Everything is fine.” A man — whom we later learn to be the town’s architect, Michael — welcomes her into his office and informs her that she is dead and this is the afterlife.
As the show continues, Michael walks the four main characters of Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason (as well as us viewers) through a tour of the show’s basic mythology: most religions were about 8% right about the afterlife, though it is made up of a typical Heaven/Hell archetype dynamic. These locations, called the Good Place and the Bad Place respectively, are the final resting places for your immortal essence after your time on Earth is done.
The decision of which place you are sent to is determined by your final score, a tally of your actions and their repercussions over your earthy life based on a scoring system touted as “fool-proof.” The higher your points, the better your chance of getting into the Good Place and spending eternity in a veritable utopia; the lower your score, the more likely you’ll go to the Bad Place instead and face unending torture, such as encounters with “butt spiders” and bears with two mouths, to name a few.
However, as the first episode draws to a close, we learn that all is not fine in the Good Place. In the final moments of the pilot, Eleanor admits to her assigned-soulmate Chidi that she was sent to the Good Place by mistake. This admission sets into motion a chain reaction of events that quickly turn this utopian neighborhood into a living dystopian nightmare for our four main characters, and eventually leads to the realization by Eleanor that they were never actually in the Good Place to begin with.
Utopian Signifiers & Dystopian Realities
As the first season continues, the show sets up numerous signifiers of utopia that ultimately work towards dystopian ends, which helps guide Eleanor to her ultimate and world-shattering conclusion. The three main aspects that clue this utopia as something else include the environment, the organizational system, and the individual experience within the utopia. It is in this process that the show’s representation of utopia becomes not just a backdrop but also a critical commentary on utopia in media, fantastic or otherwise.
Starting with the environment, Neighborhood 12358W appears bright, pastel, and almost overwhelming saccharine to an American audience. It’s all pun-based business names, delightfully striped awnings, and flower-filled window boxes as far as the eye can see. For some, it’s a veritable Heaven; for others, it’s too cloyingly perfect to be real.
The environment also has impacts on more personal levels, such as Eleanor’s and Tahani’s homes. Eleanor’s small home is built in “The Icelandic Primitive Style,” with numerous clown paintings adorning the walls, elements which Eleanor continually and consistently voices her less-than-pleased opinion about. Similarly, Tahani’s home is a point of contention for her as well, as while it’s big and well-decorated, it’s still not the biggest or the best-decorated in the neighborhood, a sticking point for her given her desire to be the best at everything.
Another major influential part of the Good Place is the point system by which everyone is evaluated. While at face value it may seem fair and fool-proof, in actuality, it shows that it falls short of accounting for the nuances of actual human experience in a complex world. In an example directly from the show, someone in the 15th century could pick some flowers on their way to visit their mother and they would get positive points for this action.
However, someone in the 21st century stopping to pick up some flowers for their mother will also get the positive points, but they also face the unintended consequences of actions due to a globalized and mechanized society, such as supporting a store that may be criminally underpaying their employees, the environmental damage sustained by transporting the flowers to the store, the use of pesticides on the flowers that kill important pollinators, and so on. The positive act of purchasing flowers for their mother gets lost in the unintended negative consequences of the action. When the decisions get broken down like this, it’s no wonder Chidi had such bad anxiety.
This importance on nuance is also carried into the issue of the individual experiences within this utopian setting. Each character has their own reasons to love the place, and within those same reasons are also why they are suffering. Chidi has the opportunity to experience life without thinking about ethical ramifications, but his choice anxiety is still strong even after death and he’s thrown into ethical issue after issue in his loyalty to his apparent soulmate Eleanor. On the flip side, Eleanor is surrounded by good people who truly care about her, but by her own admission good people make her feel deeply insecure and she tends to lash out to combat the feeling.
Similarly, Tahani is highly respected and revered in the community, though we learn in a later episode that she is the second-lowest ranked in terms of “goodness points” in the neighborhood, which plays into her fears of never being good enough. She also struggles with trying to build a connection with her soulmate Jianyu, further aggravating her feelings of inadequacy. On the other side, Jason is known and loved for his wisdom and contributions to the community, but only when he’s Jianyu Li the silent monk, not himself. Jason expresses that he wants nothing more than to be appreciated for who he is, not who other people think he should be, so it’s a struggle for him to keep his identity under wraps for so long.
Failed Utopia as Goal
It’s important to note how these arguably utopian experiences become dystopian to understand the eventual message of the show: focusing too heavily on the idea of absolute perfection can be toxic and damaging. It can consume us, like Tahani; it can sour us, like Eleanor; it can paralyze us, like Chidi; or it can just baffle us, like Jason.
However, this warning doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try, as it actually encourages it. It’s through the friendship and loyalty the four main characters cultivate in one another that ultimately proves to be their salvation. They show that utopia is not always a place as we traditionally think it to be, but that it can be another person or a feeling or an action, or all of the above.
The way the four characters react to the utopian settings show that utopia is an inherently personal concept, while the dystopian thought is a much more broadly applicable idea. It’s an idea seen in other fantastic media that include similar Heaven/Hell dynamics: descriptions of Heaven are vague or directed at a certain audience at best, while descriptions of Hell are specific and can be applied to a broad audience.
But when faced with this kind of conclusion, what does that mean for the use of utopia and utopian narratives? Why do we continue to use such narratives in storytelling, even when we know they’re meant to fail, such as in The Good Place?
There’s a lovely quote by Oscar Wilde that many utopian scholars use to help explain why utopias and their critical nature are important:
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”
Being contradictory is often how a literary utopia is meant to work. Like its sister dystopia, utopian stories heighten facets of the audience’s own society and its concepts in order to produce valuable criticism of that system to help it develop into something better.
In the end, while The Good Place attempts to present utopia in both the people and the society, both are flawed and represent critical versions of the society it is meant to reflect in order to inspire its growth. It shows that in the end, the most human we can be is to make mistakes but try to do good anyway.
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