People won’t shut up about breaking out of our “social media echo chambers” that reinforce our politics. If ever there was a show that could do so, it’s The Good Place. The show, a comedy set in a ludicrous version of the afterlife, is so fun and frothy, it takes you a second to realize it is one of the most naturally woke mainstream shows for some time. It’s not explicitly trying to be, and that’s part of the appeal. It’s not asking the viewer to consider heavy political questions but it has some answers.
The Good Place respects women in a way you rarely see on TV, let alone mainstream sitcoms. It’s not a political anthem like Dear White People or even Girls (as problematic as the latter’s feminism may be), nor is it a girl power manifesto like Buffy or Supergirl. The Good Place lets its women be people: good, bad, weird, sane and everything in between.
Main dead person, Eleanor Shellstrop (played with razor-sharp comedic precision by Kristen Bell), leads the cast with her biting rudeness and self-absorption. She’s not crammed into any trope of womanhood so popular in sitcoms. Flashbacks to her life show her living self was morally reprehensible pretty much all the time, yet it wasn’t a comment on her as a woman, but a human.
In one flashback, she is portrayed as a bad friend for going home with the bartender instead of being the designated driver for her friends. It isn’t a comment on her sluttiness that makes her a bad person, but her lack of concern for her friends (who also kind of suck). Eleanor, for all her faults as a messy, selfish person who likes shrimp far more than anyone should, is rather open-minded. She’s a jerk to everyone but that’s just it: she’s a jerk to everyone.
A women can either be a bad woman or a good woman, never a person. As the first season evolved, Eleanor became a truly better person. By season two, even though her memories of the first season are gone, she retains vestiges of her moral progress, such as when she doesn’t get wasted at the welcome party and steal all the shrimp. But that evolution was driven by self-preservation, not an innate sense of goodness. She had to stay sober to not draw attention and she didn’t steal all the shrimp because she was looking for a way out of the party.
One can’t forget the episode in which the show directly addresses that toxic cliché of women tearing each other down for a man. In “Chidi’s Choice,” Eleanor and her neighbor/quasi-friend Tahani (Jameela Jamil) both realize their feelings for Chidi (William Jackson Harper). Eleanor declares “we’re not gonna do this. We are not gonna those women who fight over a guy and find any excuse to rip each other apart.” The line is clearly the show doing what it does best, which is present a sitcom cliché then twist it so it’s a little off, just as The Good Place itself is good… but a wrong. But the scene also works as a feminist declaration against female frenemies that center around a man. Even more so when Tahani responds with “I am not going to apologize for being angry.” Because she shouldn’t have to. The two women aren’t frenemies but they’re also not the giggling, perpetually happy BFFs that only ever say nice things to each other. They are friends and sometimes friends fight.
Another hallmark of this show’s surprising political awareness is the ease with which it presents a diverse cast. Granted, Eleanor and Michael (played by the Ted Danson) are typical straight white people. However, heaven (or fake heaven, as we discovered in the season one finale) is full of racial diversity beyond a single token black character. People of color are good, evil and complex on the show. People of color are, in short, people.
Tiya Sircar plays “real Eleanor” who turns out to be a demon acting the part of real Eleanor. In season two her character argues with Michael over her lack of complex role now that she doesn’t play “real Eleanor.” Their quippy dialogue is funny and heartfelt, so much that you might never realize it’s a comment on minorities’ lack of depth and opportunity in pop culture, particularly women of color.
This past year, we’ve seen blow after blow for women’s rights, women’s dignity, black and brown people’s dignity, LGBTQ people, anyone not white, male, cis and straight. We need openly feminist media. We need media that make direct statements about inequality. But The Good Place shows us we also need mainstream, feel-good media that only happens to be politically instructive.