A little over a year ago, my sister introduced me to The Good Place. I thought I could safely watch a few episodes on Netflix. I was wrong. I binged two seasons in two days. This is why I stay away from T.V. I have an easily-addicted, nay, obsessive personality.
The Good Place is an NBC-airing half-hour comedy about a woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who died. Fortunately, she ended up in the Good Place. Immortal-being Michael (Ted Danson), architect of the perfect neighborhood Eleanor will inhabit for all eternity, congratulates Eleanor for being such a stellar example of humanity and introduces her to her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a professor of ethics and moral philosophy. As soon as Michael leaves, Eleanor drops a bombshell on Chidi. There’s been a mistake, she’s not a good person, she’s not supposed to be here, and she’s afraid if anyone finds out, she’ll be shipped off to the Bad Place. As weird events in the neighborhood threaten to expose her true identity, Eleanor enlists Chidi’s help to become a good person and earn her place in paradise.
There are so many things I love about The Good Place, from the characters, to the relationships, to the concepts. It is a unique fantasy/ speculative fiction, which creates a fully functioning, well-developed world, while contemplating the big questions of good and evil, life and death, and what makes us human. It teaches ethics and moral philosophy, name dropping famous philosophers, summarizing core concepts, and integrating the lessons into each episode of a continuing story arc… and it’s funny! The Good Place is something that feels like should not exist, let alone be any good, let alone have people watch it… and yet it does. I’m amazed.
As we head into Season 4, the final season, The Good Place has evolved into what I am convinced is the purest definition of epic fantasy. It may be disguised as a quirky comedy, but when you have a tight group of friends making terrible personal sacrifices in the service of world-shattering stakes--yeah, epic. This is what I want from fantasy. Not just the same old magic, dragons, and elves. I want something original, something that takes risks, something that tackles complicated issues while still giving me reason to hope.
So as I was watching re-runs of Season 4 on Hulu early in November, I got to an episode where Eleanor and friends are discouraged. They’ve just had a huge setback, but they’re re-grouping and trying again. I finish watching and go out to walk the dog, and I’m thinking about what it means to save the world. In The Good Place, the stakes are huge, and yet all that needs to be accomplished, when it comes down to it, is for certain “medium persons” to become good. Which made me think. If the souls of humanity were riding on me being a good person, could I do it? Could I be, not even great, but just a little bit better?
Because I write fantasy and have a general interest in ethics, I spend a lot of time contemplating what it means to be good. But while I like to think about being good, I have trouble turning those thoughts into action. It seems to me I’ve spent most of my life aspiring to be a neutral person… someone who doesn’t do anything bad, but also never does anything really good. I never thought goodness was achievable, not for me. I don’t have a cause, I don’t care enough, and even if I did, I don’t have the courage to pull through. At best, I can hope to not hurt anyone or anything.
Gradually, this mindset has shifted--not entirely due to The Good Place--and I’ve come to realize, that maybe I do have the power to become good. I’m not saying I will ever be Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Junior, but don’t I have the responsibility to, at the very least, try to make the world a better place? And watching The Good Place, watching the characters work so hard to get people to try, I wonder--am I trying? Even a little bit?
As I continue to walk, I nearly stepping on some dog poop lying on the middle of the road. It’s not my dog’s poop, but it is an eye sore, and it gets me thinking. A few days earlier, I took my two-year old nephew to walk the dog, Luna, and when she pooped, I picked it up, like a neutral person does, and he got all excited. Then he found some poop from another dog and wanted me to pick it up. I had to explain to him that, no, you only pick up your dog’s poop.
This conversation did not sit well with me. I felt bad as though my two-year-old nephew was excited about being good, and here I was, training him to be neutral. Why? Because it might look weird to do something different? Because I’d never thought to do it any other way?
So I’m standing in the road, looking at this fresh batch of poop, with all the lessons of The Good Place ringing in my head, and this little question starts to tug on me. When given an opportunity to do good, something that requires very little effort, courage, or time from you… do you do it? Or do you ignore it? And if so, why?
Why not try to be good, just for a change?
So, after all this moral deliberating, I picked up the dog poop. Why not? I had the little baggies for my own dog. Then I decided, why not to pick up some trash along the way? Just whatever I happened to see. I did this because, deep, deep down, I actually wanted to be a good person. Not a saint… just a little bit better than neutral.
But the minute I decided I might as well pick up trash, I began to notice that there was a lot more trash than I thought. It wasn’t a dumpy neighborhood, by any means, it’s just that when you start to look, it becomes overwhelming.
This is where, I think, people get tripped up when they try to do good. (Or at least, where I always got tripped up.) You did something. Yay! But suddenly, you realize the problem is much worse than you thought. There’s a million pieces of trash all around you. Do you pick them up or ignore them? Should you start committing to picking up ten pieces of trash? Twenty? Will you need to start taking a bag when you go with you and how much longer will it take. Is it fair that you pick up trash in this neighborhood and not another neighborhood and… and…
…and suddenly instead of the happy rush of doing something good, you feel guilt and obligation. So you either give up or become burnt out, because no matter what you do, it is never going to be enough.
This time, though, I told my over-thinking brain to shut up. I did something good. It was a small, cowardly, convenient kind of good, but so what? It made me happy, because I was trying to take action, because I was trying to be a better person. I had not committed myself to saving the world. My rule was this: you pick up trash because you want to, and when you no longer want to, you stop.
And it’s funny, because it’s been close to a month now, and I still want to pick up trash. There is something empowering, maybe even addicting about it. No, I can’t solve the problems of the world, but I can do this one small thing, and if I keep doing it, maybe it will start to add up. Maybe it will make a difference.
Anyway, I wanted to write this to give props to The Good Place, because this is the first time a piece of art got me to consciously change my behavior. I know that picking up trash on a walk isn’t much, but it’s something. As an artist, I know how it is to spend countless hours of hard work, not to mention pouring out your thoughts and emotions, in the hopes of affecting someone. So I wanted to say… The Good Place did. It affected me. It made me, in my own small, cowardly way, a better person.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.