You’re probably wondering how a show made by Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and starring Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, House of Lies) and Ted Danson (Cheers, Becker) has found its way into our small screen horror selection. If you’ve only seen promos for The Good Place you might be thinking we’ve got our shows mixed up and we’re not referring to the colourful afterlife switcheroo show you’ve seen advertised or that has just appeared on your Netflix under TV comedies.
But if you’re wondering why The Good Place, a half-hour sitcom airing on NBC, is actually existential horror at its finest, read on.
The premise of The Good Place is that one day Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell) wakes up to find herself in a waiting room of an unfamiliar building. She is ushered into an office by Michael (Danson) who informs her that she has died but because of her life spent doing good deeds she has ended up in the Good Place, where she will live out eternity in infinite happiness. Michael is the immortal architect of their section of the Good Place which is filled with restaurants that only serve your favourite foods, flying lessons, houses built perfectly to all of your tastes, and your soulmate. Eleanor meets her soulmate, Chidi, and very quickly confesses to him that there is a mix-up, she never did a good deed in her whole life and she doesn’t belong in the Good Place at all, and probably should have gone to the Bad Place.
Most of the first season is taken up with Chidi, an ethics professor in life, trying to teach Eleanor to be a good person so she’ll fit in in the Good Place while trying to maintain her cover as the Good Place rebels against her presence developing sinkholes, raining garbage, and being attacked by flying shrimp. Each episode sees a crisis arise, the crisis then be solved, and then in the last seconds of the show another crisis arrive. It’s a very fun, very clever show that is perfect for week to week watching or hardcore bingeing.
Until the final episode of the first season. Now we’re getting into full spoiler territory here and I won’t be holding back so if you’ve never seen the show I will say this: turn back. Go watch the show and once you’ve got a few episodes into the second season come back and finish the article.
In the final episode of the first season, the four leads: Eleanor, Chidi, Jason (an idiot DJ from Florida who is also not supposed to be in the Good Place), and Tahani (a name-dropping socialite) find themselves being forced to choose two of them who must go the Bad Place due to circumstances too complicated to go into here. As they argue and bicker about who should go, Eleanor works it out: they aren’t in the Good Place at all. They’re in the Bad Place and have been from the start. Michael, the immortal architect, who has bumbled around with Ted Danson charm is actually the villain of the show and the entire Good Place town they live in is designed to eternally torture the four of them like a grand retelling of Sartre’s No Exit.
And this is where the horror comes in. Throughout the first season of the show, I had an unsettling feeling about the entire concept. Unlike other sitcoms where the characters are mostly just trying to keep their job, not blow their chances with the person they like, and be a good friend, Eleanor Shellstrop is trying to avoid going to Hell. Throughout, there are constant reminders of what Hell entails, and though most of them are comedically awful (bees with teeth), the stakes are as high as they could feasibly be. If Eleanor can’t outwit those around her she will face eternal, infinite, forever torture at the hands of Hellish tormentors.
And this becomes even worse once the show reveals its biggest trick in the dying moments of season one. Your food turning to spiders in your mouth is a great torture on paper, but the existential horror of being presented with paradise, only to find that it contains your worst fears, is true horror indeed. For the four main characters, two of them actually believe (wrongfully) that they should be in the Good Place and then find themselves constantly up against the things they worried about most in life. In Chidi’s case it was making decisions so he finds himself in a love triangle, and for Tahani her life was spent trying to stay one step ahead of her brilliant sister, so she finds herself constantly overshadowed by others and unable to increase her social standing in the Good Place. The magic trick is that because of the awfulness of the lives led by Eleanor and Jason, the Good Place stowaways, we never even consider that Chidi and Tahani are being punished and we definitely never consider that the Heaven we’re presented with is actually Hell.
The second season begins with everyone’s minds being wiped and the whole place reset. Michael’s plan to use the Good Place ruse to torture a handful of people is a new one for the bosses of the Bad Place and one he must succeed in or face retirement (an elaborate, eternal torture involving your atoms being vaporised in the sun). However, no matter how many times they try the plan, Eleanor works it out. It can take a few days or a few months but eventually, the humans win and the whole thing gets reset.
Again and again, the main characters are thrust into the worst possible scenarios for themselves and each time, they work it out only to find themselves back at the start. The most recent episode has floated the idea that there might actually be a way to get from the Bad Place to the Good Place, but I find it hard to trust this show with that kind of thing and not to see it as possibly another part of Michael’s plan.
So if you were wondering why a show like this is actually a horror show, take a few minutes to think about eternity. No end. Ongoing. Infinite. Then place yourself in that eternity as the plaything of immortal beings who want nothing more than for you to suffer endlessly all without your knowledge that you’re being punished. Of course, it’s possible I’m overthinking this and The Good Place is just an intensely funny, high-concept show with a great cast, cracking one-liners, and wonderful art design and direction, and all that existential stuff is something I shouldn’t think too much about. But as much as I find the show hilarious I can’t shake the fact that we’re watching something truly, truly horrific being presented to us with excellent food puns, great physical comedy, and a smiling face. Which is pretty much what happens to these characters when they arrive in Heaven, just before they work out I that it’s actually Hell.
Featured Image: NBC