Why today’s media should take lessons from ‘The Good Place’

the good place
NBC/Netflix/Courtesy

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ometimes when I enter the world of today’s media, it feels like I might be living in a bad place. The news is wrought with scandals, and social media platforms overflow with negativity. But for all the widespread toxicity, I’ve found solace and positivity in NBC’s “The Good Place,” one of the most intelligently written and hilarious shows I’ve seen. In case you haven’t heard it already, you should watch “The Good Place.” It teaches a simple but important lesson: People should try to be good.

The basic premise of “The Good Place” revolves around the idea of a point system that weighs the positive and negative effects of your actions on Earth to determine your place in the afterlife. Earn enough points, and you get sent to the Good Place, whereas losing too many gets you sentenced to the Bad Place.

While some point criteria are more obviously positive and negative, such as helping sick children versus vandalizing peoples’ homes, some are fun and comical. Rooting for the New York Yankees or using the term “bro code” could lead to a point loss, but one can earn good credit if they let someone merge in traffic or ignore a text while having an in-person conversation.

Then the show disrupts this system by showing us what happens when a self-proclaimed “dirtbag,” Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who has lost too many points, gets mistakenly put in the Good Place. Once there, she is paired up with a straight-laced professor of morality and ethics, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and the results of this combination are entertaining, relatable and incredibly motivating — they make me want to be a better person.

Shows that try to mirror the real world often glamorize or demonize it, but “The Good Place” just reflects it. Nobody is perfectly good or irrevocably bad.

The concept of learning to be a good person feels like something I have seen before. But not since the days when I watched PBS Kids have I seen something that made moral lessons so natural and relatable — I may not need Big Bird or Arthur to teach me that sharing is good, but I do need a Chidi to remind me that my actions have consequences.

The dynamic pairing of Eleanor and Chidi acts as the moral crux of the show, juxtaposing an unreasonably selfish individual with someone who is incredibly passionate about moral philosophy. But even with the blatant message telling people to be good, the show never veers into preachy territory. It never feels like a force-fed lesson on religion because, as the writer of the show, Michael Schur, affirms, “It’s about versions of ethical behavior, not religious salvation.”

Throughout the show, we are constantly presented with moral questions that have no clear-cut answer. Should Eleanor turn herself in? Should Chidi help her even though she doesn’t belong in the Good Place? Is the point system even a fair way of judging people? What does it even mean to be good?

None of these questions have straightforward answers, and that’s the point.

Shows that try to mirror the real world often glamorize or demonize it, but “The Good Place” just reflects it. Nobody is perfectly good or irrevocably bad. That’s what makes it so difficult to coexist, but it’s also what makes it so important to try to be a good person.

These characters are just trying their best to live good (after)lives. Like every person, they didn’t ask to be put in the circumstances they are in, but rather than give up or complain, they actively make improvements — not just for themselves, but for those around them.

There is a stark contrast between “The Good Place” and a lot of other critically acclaimed shows. This comes from its deviation from the trend of highlighting the bad parts of their characters without much moral improvement.

Like every person, they didn’t ask to be put in the circumstances they are in, but rather than give up or complain, they actively make improvements — not just for themselves, but for those around them.

Shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” can attribute much of their popularity to their glorification of an antihero, writing protagonists that are morally questionable in their actions, creating an addicting formula for these series. There is a sense of intrigue and fascination in seeing people do things that are morally reprehensible. But it’s not just a recent occurrence, as even the ending of “Seinfeld” affirmed that its characters, no matter how funny they are to watch, weren’t necessarily good people.

And unlike other shows, the characters in “The Good Place” feel so real that I can’t just chalk up their growth to the writing of a script. I can relate to Chidi’s indecisiveness about helping someone who might not be worth it. I have had the same insecure thoughts that Eleanor has about whether she’s actually capable of doing good things. When I see them grow and learn, it genuinely feels like I have, too.

Media doesn’t have to be pure escapism for the viewer. Good can still be found in popular and entertaining mediums such as TV. Just because we may have outgrown children’s shows — shows that teach us both the alphabet and important lessons on sharing and fairness — doesn’t mean we have to stop learning about how to live with other people.

It may be a bit late for people to turn on “Sesame Street” to be taught what it means to be a good person, but “The Good Place” is a great place to be reminded of a simple lesson: It’s always worth it to try to be good.

Contact Emmanuel Ronquillo at [email protected].