One of the important things the series deals with is the question of identity. Almost everyone in the series is lying about who they are, at least at first. Eleanor is not the Eleanor Shelstrop she claims to be. Michael is not a “Good Place architect”. Jason is not Jianyu. Everyone is acting roles – sometimes even acting multiple layered roles within roles. At the start of season one, the only characters in the whole series who believe themselves to be being honest to everyone they encounter about who they are are Chidi and Tahani – and as we later discover, they are not being honest to themselves.
The only character in the series who is completely honest, both to herself and to others, about who she is is Janet. And yet Janet constantly has others’ concepts of her identity imposed on her. “Not a girl”, “not a robot”, “not a person” – these are Janet’s catchphrases. She is like so many marginalised groups in that no matter how clearly and straightforwardly she states her identity, she is not taken seriously – the characters treat her as if she fits into the categories they assign her based on her appearance, rather than treating her as who she claims to be – even though, for most of the first two series, she is literally incapable of lying or dissembling at all.
(That said, it’s important not to state that Janet “is” non-binary or trans, for example, because that gives a promise of representation to a marginalised community which the show does not make good on. It’s not a claim that anyone involved with the show has made, but it has been made by some members of the fandom, and it’s unhelpful. We will, later, be looking at Janet in a lot more detail,)
There are questions of identity in the other sense too though – this is a series that is surprisingly diverse in its representation (though not surprising when one looks at the other work Schur has been involved in – Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for example, centres round a straight white man, but its cast is hugely diverse). Of its four main human characters, only two are American (Eleanor and Jason), with the other two being a British woman of Pakistani extraction and a Senegalese man (although both Janet and Michael present as American, and Chidi speaks with an American accent – but in-universe this is explained by everyone being perceived by Eleanor according to what she can understand). Every white male in the series is a figure of malevolent authority (at least in the afterlife – there are minor white male characters in Eleanor and Chidi’s flashback sequences who are decent human beings, though even there they’re in the minority), and our protagonist, Eleanor, is definitely not monosexual (she expresses sexual attraction to multiple men, but also to Tahani and to “real Eleanor” – whether she would self-describe as bi, pan, or possibly just as a straight woman who’s sometimes into women is not made clear in the series).
That said, I have seen a criticism of the series – one that I’m not in a position to judge fairly – which claims that the characters of colour are largely not given the same chance to grow as the white characters, and that the show centres too much on a white woman’s feelings, with the other characters existing largely to perform emotional labour for her. That is not my reading of the show, but it is a reading that exists, and that has been made by people who are possibly more sensitive to these things than I, as a white man, can be.
As well as these obvious representations of diversity, there’s also neurodiversity – while Chidi is never explicitly stated to be autistic, all of his behaviours are autistic-coded, and I would be absolutely certain that any person behaving as he does in real life was autistic. (Again, see Schur’s other current show, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where neurotypical-coded people are the minority)
The only person in the whole series who is secure in her identity and feels no need to lie to herself or others is Mindy St. Claire, the only inhabitant of the Medium Place. She’s the only human who is never rebooted, she’s always known by her real name (unlike many of the other characters) and she is always entirely honest about who she is and what she’s like. She also understands herself, and her own strengths and weaknesses, in a way no other character does. If, as Lao Tze says, knowing yourself is enlightenment, then Mindy is definitely the most enlightened character in the entire series.
But Mindy has a life that involves no relationships with anyone else at all, and this seems to be something the show sets out to show us – that our identities are defined, not by who we are to ourselves, but who we are in our relationships with each other. The show repeatedly returns to the theme of “what we owe to each other”, and one lesson we can take away is that one thing we owe to each other is ourselves.
Mindy lives a solitary, self-contained life, one in which masturbation figures more heavily than any other interest, and every lesson she tries to teach Eleanor is along the same lines – you have to save yourself and not look out for other people, because no-one will look out for you. You can be kind and friendly, but self-sacrifice should be totally out of the question.
She actually takes a very utilitarian point of view (and we will look at the series’ attitude to utilitarianism and how it relates to its attitudes to society in a future essay) – assuming the negative consequences of an action remain constant no matter what, it’s better to have those negative consequences happen to somebody else, rather than to oneself. This goes against everything that any of the other human characters believe (by the later episodes – both Eleanor and Jason would definitely have agreed with this while alive) but it’s an entirely consistent worldview, and it’s not one which makes her incapable of caring for other people. All else being equal, Mindy would rather everyone was happy, but when someone has to suffer, she would rather it was anyone except her.
And this is where we get to the series’ view of a strong sense of identity as something that is a hindrance, not a help, to becoming the best version of yourself. Early on, Chidi namechecks Hume’s bundle theory of the self, and compares it to Buddhism’s concept of the self. In both these, the self is not something that exists in itself and has properties, but is only something that can be understood in terms of those properties.
So we don’t have a self that is separate from our selfishness or our jealousy or our kindness, we are our selfishness or jealousy or kindness, and there’s nothing else left once you get rid of those things. And by thinking of an “I” that is separate from those things, and by prioritising it over really-existing things, you are bound to be led into sins of one kind or another.
(That said, it’s hard to reconcile that with a series whose basic premise is that souls do exist – after all, in order for there to be an afterlife at all, there has to be something that’s separate from the physical body which carries on existing, and there’s no reason not to call that the self or the soul and have done with it. But the soul in The Good Place is a rather more physical thing than the soul in most religions – very few religious philosophies consider an afterlife where one can consume frozen yoghurt, shrimp, or clam chowder.)
Morality in The Good Place is, very literally, selflessness. And all four of the human protagonists have been punished for selfishness in one way or another. Eleanor was selfish in the most normal sense of the word – she simply didn’t care about anyone other than herself, and behaved that way – and the same went for Jason, whose life on Earth was spent doing nothing but gratifying his own immediate physical needs, but who still believed himself a beautiful soul with unique talents.
Chidi may not appear to be selfish in his procrastinating and equivocating, but he is, in the end, still more concerned about himself and his own internal state than about others – he cares about “doing what’s right” and living up to his own ethical standards, but that seems to be more because of his own excess of scrupulosity than about the effects his actions have on others. He refuses to lie because lying makes him feel bad, not because lying hurts others – and indeed he tells the truth even when he knows it will upset other people, because to do otherwise hurts him.
And Tahani, obviously, is concerned about other people only in so far as they’re giving her the attention and praise she never received from her parents. For her, people exist only to bolster her own ego, not as independent people with their own lives – hence, also, all her superficial namedropping.
And speaking of namedropping, of course names are important in people’s identities, and that’s something we’ll be looking at in the future…
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Great work so far, looking forward to future installments! (but no pressure)
Have you read this New Yorker article about Schur and the Saab Guy incident? Sort of an origin story for The Good Place
“very few religious philosophies consider an afterlife where one can consume frozen yoghurt, shrimp, or clam chowder”
Almost the first thing Jesus does after his Resurrection is eat fish for breakfast. :)