Ted Danson of Cheers and Curb Your Enthusiasm and Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars star in NBC's The Good Place.
Ted Danson of Cheers and Curb Your Enthusiasm and Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars star in NBC's The Good Place.
NBC Universal

The Network Sitcom Full of Jokes at PhD-Philosophy Level

Religion surfaces less than two minutes into the NBC prime time series The Good Place. Given the death, destruction and suppression of individual freedoms historically carried out in the name of God, that might seem like a bad place to start a comedic series. But The Good Place is set in the afterlife, so the subject is virtually unavoidable.

A lot has been made of the sitcom's spotlight on moral philosophy. If we ever needed a vehicle with the breadth of a network TV audience reminding us all of the basics of good versus evil, that time is now. While its characters overtly discuss ethics and try to remind millions of viewers of the basics of being good and decent, the notion of religious tolerance is stitched with gossamer thread and nearly seamlessly into the show's fabric.

Now in its second season and airing on Thursday nights, The Good Place is the story of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who is waking up dead and in the next plane of existence when we meet her. She's introduced to her life-after-death by Ted Danson's character, who explains her earthly demise. She's killed when a train of runaway shopping carts in a grocery-store parking lot nudge her into the path of a truck advertising an erectile-dysfunction pill called "Engorgulate," while stooping to retrieve a wayward bottle of Lonely Gal Margarita Mix.

Danson tells her the notion of Heaven and Hell isn't exact, but that she and all the recently deceased beings she's soon to encounter and involve in her adventures could have gone to a "bad place" or a "good place." She's in "The Good Place." Danson's character is named Michael, an early sign that show creator Michael Schur and his writers aren't going to construct their idea of paradise strictly from a stack of Christian building blocks. Michael the Archangel is a religious figure venerated by Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Only Danson's Michael isn't the biblical archangel; he's the architect of the Utopian community to which Eleanor is assigned after death. But she's not supposed to be there. We learn pretty quickly, through a series of zany flashbacks and hilarious admissions, that she was a pretty terrible person with few redeeming qualities. We learn most of this when she spills to Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), who was a professor of ethics in his earthly existence and (conveniently) is Eleanor's soul mate. According to Michael, everyone in The Good Place has a soul mate.

The notion of a soul mate, a being we connect with in this life and possibly others, lives in various religions, going back to the Greek gods. Hinduism recognizes a connection between certain souls. Buddhism sees those souls reconnecting in reincarnated existences, and Judaism recognizes the possibility that we all have destined partners.

Eleanor's soul mate accepts the daunting task of teaching her to be good so she'll not be banished to "The Bad Place," which is the crux of the series and from which much hilarity ensues. The show is cleverly written and its actors — especially Bell — execute the premise perfectly. A small example: Michael tries to explain to all the souls who have just entered The Good Place the points system used to determine which souls belonged where after death. He uses a graphic to demonstrate, one that suggests "hugging a sad friend" is worth five positive points, while buying "a trashy magazine" is a .75-point demerit, and far below "using 'Facebook' as a verb," which will cost you 5.55 points (and rightfully so). Once you've binge-watched Season 1, you'll be left lying on the pavement, struck by a train of runaway plot twists. Go back and watch from the first episode and you'll see shrewdly hidden hints of what's to come.

Jianyu, Chidi and Eleanor are the new George, Jerry and Elaine.
Jianyu, Chidi and Eleanor are the new George, Jerry and Elaine.
Screenshot/NBC Universal

One of the less subtle nods to religious diversity in the series is that a principal character, Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), is introduced as a Buddhist monk. When we meet him, he's draped in a monastic robe and is engaged in a vow of silence, much to the chagrin of his chatty gadfly of a soulmate, Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil). Think back on all the network television you've ever seen in your lifetime and picture all of the men of the cloth (who have almost always been men, but that's a different story for another time). If you're American, you're summoning black-clad preachers delivering words of comfort and solace, the title character of the current AMC series Preacher notwithstanding. There's more to Jianyu than meets the eye, but for once the television-viewing eye sees a religious leader in prime time who isn't assigned to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Good Place's religion borrows a bit from here and some from there. For instance, one character resides in "The Medium Place." It's not expressly identified as Catholic purgatory, but what else might one call a place where a ho-hum afterlife is day after lonely day of recalling the glory and guilt associated with cocaine and pornography? The end of Season 1 and the beginning of Season 2 lean hard on the idea of reincarnation, the spiritual equivalent of hitting the reset button until existence — heavenly, hellish, earthly or otherwise — is perfectly fulfilled. A dozen episodes into the series, it's apparent that The Good Place is Seinfeld meets Sartre; its quartet of main characters have faults as do Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer, and those faults become apparent. Only this series is about everything and not about nothing, so the stakes seem higher than soup Nazis, marble-rye loaves and puffy shirts.

The series' biggest nod to religious tolerance (so far) can be tracked all the way back to those first two minutes. Once she realizes what's happened, Eleanor asks Michael, "So, who was right?"

His response puts every religion on even ground, a place that, as far as we can tell, is nonexistent in the real world. He answers, "Hindus are a little bit right...Muslims a little bit. Jews, Christians, Buddhists. Every religion guessed about 5 percent."

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