Spoilers below for The Good Place. You’ve been warned!
With The Good Place, creator Mike Schur sought to make a show about what it means to be a good person. But by inventing a sitcom about ethics and putting it on the air these past four years, Schur unwittingly cemented the show’s legacy as the quintessential series of the Trump era.
I realize that the fourth and final season literally just began, so perhaps it seems premature to discuss the show’s legacy. But wherever the story winds up going in these last 13 episodes, four of which I’ve already seen, The Good Place has consistently tapped into a public curiosity and concern about whether integrity still matters in a country where Donald Trump can run for president, take office, and seemingly get away with doing whatever he wants. (At least until this week, anyway.) The NBC series has accomplished all of that without ever being an overtly political show. Actually, the fact that it isn’t an overtly political show is part of the reason why it’s so effective.
Many good shows (and a couple so-so ones) have tackled Trump’s America in a more direct way. The Good Fight, Roseanne before it turned into The Conners, Our Cartoon President, Saturday Night Live, and of course all the political talk shows, from Last Week With John Oliver to Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, have addressed the president and the ramifications of his conduct in the Oval Office. That kind of television certainly has its place, but it’s sometimes so specific that it has a preaching-to-the-choir effect. I also wonder whether, years from now, some of those shows will still resonate. The Good Place is much more subtle. It’s an inviting, funny work of escapism that makes viewers comfortable enough to consider deep philosophical questions at a time when considering them is vital, but often obscured by a barrage of news alerts and tweets. It’s not outright about Trump’s America, but it does capture, on a subconscious level, what is so troublesome about living in Trump’s America.
Of course, The Good Place does sometimes comment on the current political climate, even if it’s by accident. This week’s season premiere gave off that vibe more than once, perhaps most glaringly when Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), the leader of Team Bad Place, said it would be cheating to make Chidi become the fourth subject in a competitive experiment with Team (Fake) Good Place, who are trying to prove that humans are capable of rising to their better selves. “Chidi can’t be part of the experiment,” Shawn objected, despite having just sent a demon in disguise to sabotage the same experiment. “They already know that he can improve … that’s cheating.”
“How is that cheating?” Kristen Bell’s Eleanor asked. “You’re just accusing us of doing what you actually did.” This episode was written months ago, but the idea of an unethical character accusing someone else of doing what he actually did was extra rich against the backdrop of an impeachment inquiry in which Trump has been accusing Joe Biden of corrupt behavior while seemingly engaging in tons of it himself.
Other moments in “A Girl From Arizona” could also be interpreted as riffs on the current moment. There was the introduction of Brent (Ben Koldyke), a subject in the experiment who happens to be a rich white man with a load of gripes about PC culture run amok. (“By the way, I’m the furthest thing from racist,” he made sure to note. “My dentist was a black woman.”) Despite his enthusiasm for golf, Brent doesn’t come across as an exact Trump surrogate, but he certainly seems like someone who would have been friends with Brett Kavanaugh, PJ, and Squi in high school. And then, there was the scene that cut back and forth between Michael, Eleanor, Shawn, and his demons. “There is no problem we can’t solve!” declared Michael. Cut to Shawn: “There is no problem we can’t create!” Two parties working at cross-purposes, with one trying to resolve issues only to see their work potentially undone by the other? That doesn’t echo contemporary politics at all.
I’ll admit that some of these connections are probably not intentional. Schur, who expresses plenty of political opinions on his Twitter feed, was adamant at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour that he keeps that sort of discussion to a minimum within The Good Place writers’ room. “We try to avoid all Trump bullshit, frankly,” he said. “I was like, ‘We can’t function as a show if all we’re doing is talking about this.’ So we have appointed times where we discuss current events and what’s going on — and then we work. And we’ve tried to keep the ethics that our characters are discussing and the ethics of modern-day America [separate].”
What’s remarkable is that the ethical concerns of The Good Place still dovetail with what’s happening in modern-day America. The show debuted on NBC in 2016, a week before the first presidential debate, and its first season finale aired the night before Trump’s inauguration. Over the course of that season, Eleanor Shellstrop, a woman who had been a real heel in life, got into the Good Place because of what initially appeared to be an error. But the season’s big twist was that Eleanor, along with her friends Chidi, Tahani, and Jason didn’t land in the Good Place by accident. They were actually in the Bad Place the whole time. Michael (Ted Danson), the guy in charge, was really a demon. That shock — that a place so seemingly wonderful was actually the worst — may not have meant to reflect how many Americans felt when they realized our country was capable of electing Donald Trump. But it absolutely did, and so did the sense of determination that Eleanor showed in the face of Michael’s unconscionable behavior, a determination that she’s exhibited time and time again ever since.
In an essay published on Splitsider after that finale, Stephanie Palumbo expressed these same ideas. “Whether Schur wrote it with Trump in mind or not, the timing couldn’t have been more appropriate,” she wrote. “Eleanor’s strength, optimism, and resolve against the embodiment of evil are instructive. She reads the book What We Owe to Each Other, about our ethical obligations to others, throughout the series, and her words and actions advocate collaboration and solidarity. She provides a model of what people are capable of, even when under attack.”
For those who feel under attack by the Trump presidency, The Good Place serves not only as a respite from distressing headlines and asinine tweets, but a sitcom beacon reminding us that decency matters and that anyone is capable of it. Season two in particular — which, for the record, ended the same week that Trump delivered his first State of the Union address — served that function by showing that even Michael, a demon, could learn to be compassionate.
From there, season three highlighted the inequities in the Good Place’s scoring system and why it’s so challenging for a human to live ethically in a world where corruption is baked into its core. In the episode “Book of Dougs,” Michael brought his concerns about that system to the Committee, a group of decision-makers who planned to take action, but warned that their work will slowly unfold over hundreds of years. “We have rules, procedures,” said one of the Committee members. “We can’t just do stuff.” That prompted this response from Michael: “Just so you know, the whole time you’re doing this, the bad guys are continuing to torture everyone who ends up in the Bad Place. Which is everyone!” In Trump-era parlance, Michael’s urgency echoed what some Americans may have felt about the president, while the Committee could be seen as a stand-in for Democratic Party leaders reluctant to start impeachment proceedings. In broader terms, the Committee also symbolized how bureaucracy can be ineffective in moments of crisis, which was a perfect note to strike given that “Book of Dougs” aired in the midst of a federal government shutdown.
Again and again, The Good Place has been moving on parallel tracks with our political reality. Our desire, as viewers, to believe that the main characters on The Good Place will triumph in the face of evil mirrors the desire to see the same thing happen in our presidential politics. In terms of world-building, The Good Place was partially inspired by Lost, a show that, in my view, was the ultimate post-9/11 television series. Just as The Good Place doesn’t explicitly wrestle with politics, Lost didn’t talk about 9/11 at all. But in its premise and themes — a tragedy involving a plane, the attempt to regain normalcy after major trauma, the wariness of people who seem different — Lost yanked at threads that were also winding their way through the public consciousness. The Good Place has been doing the same thing. Which, as in the case of Lost, puts a lot of pressure on the show to pull off a satisfying finale.
The Good Place is beginning its last lap right as the impeachment effort heats up. The show’s final episode will air in early 2020, a year when the Trump era could come to an end by election or impeachment. As many Americans look to the upcoming months, they are crossing their fingers that rightness and integrity will prevail. As a series with an optimistic heart, The Good Place will likely end on a note that reinforces a belief in, well, goodness. Whatever happens on this wonderful, unpredictable brain twister of a sitcom will not predict what’s going to happen in the real world, even if it unintentionally reflects current events. But as it comes to an end, I feel sure The Good Place will do one thing that it’s always done: It will give us intelligent, hilarious television that also gives us hope.