How The Good Place Became TV’s Best Portrait of Friendship

TV Features The Good Place
How The Good Place Became TV’s Best Portrait of Friendship

I had drinks with the Eleanor to my Chidi this week—as blunt, mistrustful, and uncommonly perceptive as I am precise, sensitive, and cripplingly neurotic—and at some indeterminate point in the conversation, the tables suddenly turned. He’d been in a blue mood since Sunday, and I’d spent several days coaxing him out of it, in the winding text messages and half-monologues through which I discover what I’m trying to say. In the process of weighing his problems, though, I stubbed a toe on my own; after we settled up and said our goodbyes, I stewed for a few hours, dreamt vividly, and woke up to find the blue mood was now mine. But here’s the thing: Eleanor, my Eleanor, was still the first person I thought to tell the next morning, and though our exchange had an edge at the start—me wounded, he wary—we soon settled back into our usual rhythm, appreciative and affectionate and also quite wry. He calls this sort of small, passing conflict a relationship’s “texture.” I prefer, simply, “friend.” Because, as Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) and Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) come to understand in The Good Place, along with fellow lost souls Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), an immortal demon named Michael (Ted Danson), and a humanoid store of infinite knowledge named Janet (D’Arcy Carden), (after)life’s least-discussed “leap into faith” is that of true friendship.

This is, to me, the most ingenious feature of Michael Schur’s madcap invention, the poignant concrete upon which the series constructs its dizzying tower of food puns, dropped names, moral quandaries, plot twists: the belief that the person to whom we reveal our worst selves will still lend us an ear when we need it most dearly. As Eleanor says to Chidi in the Season One finale, referring to Plato, “I was dropped into a cave, and you were my flashlight,” and this notion—repeated in the episode’s closing moments, when she writes “Eleanor, find Chidi” on the title page of What We Owe to Each Other—comes into full flower in the series’ remarkable second season. Though it traffics in phrases — “soul mates,” for instance — for which our first association is usually romance, though it pauses on occasion to consider the complications of sex, The Good Place is, fundamentally, about the ethics of friendship: What do we owe to those most familiar with our serrated edges, our inner demons, the traits we might wish erased or forgiven when we stand before The Judge? What does it mean to be imperfect, together? To torture each other and take care of each other, to improve each other, to find, in the comfort and conflict that come with Platonic affection, the texture of connection?

The Good Place has explored these questions throughout its run, but from the (highly GIF-able, culturally à propos) moment in “Michael’s Gambit” at which Eleanor exclaims, “This is The Bad Place!” the series has made the bonds of friendship perhaps its central subject. I lost count of the number of times in Season Two that characters referred to each other—sincerely, lovingly, tauntingly, grudgingly—as “friends,” or “mates,” or “pals,” or “buddies”: In the surgical theater of “The Trolley Problem,” for instance, or after eluding capture in “Leap to Faith”; while attempting to board the balloon in “Best Self,” or during Michael’s interrogation in “The Burrito.” The conceit of the entire season, in fact, through philosophical exercises, public roasts, impromptu parties, an encounter with God (Maya Rudolph), is a series of tests in which the main quartet, almost by definition, can succeed only together, never alone. The code Michael uses to protect his charges in “Leap to Faith,” for instance, which sets in motion the sublime sequence of episodes that brings the season to its stirring conclusion, depends on piecing together clues from each person’s ritual humiliation—glimpses of their worst selves—into the whole that ultimately saves them. The series’ most penetrating insight about friendship, in fact, is that the concept of “best” and “worst” selves is erroneous, because those selves are always already co-dependent on others. “The best version of me is as much about my affect on the world around me as it is my own, egocentric self-image,” Chidi says, in his usual manner, after failing the first test to ride the balloon. “Chidi got in my head,” Eleanor says, in hers, after failing the second.

The Good Place recognizes, as I began to understand after seeing Eleanor, my Eleanor, this week, that friendship of the bone-deep sort is as much about the challenges with which it confronts us, the minor tortures, as it is about the joys: It is in passing back and forth our blue moods, in bristling at each other, in stewing, sniping, and experiencing doubt, then returning to something like equilibrium, that we realize our “self,” such as it is, is hitched to others, that we grow in tandem—only together, never alone. In this the series draws one distinction—between “existence” and “essence”—and blurs another, capturing the slippage from friendship to romance without the reflexive suggestion, so common in film and television, that the latter is the higher-order form of intimacy. Indeed, The Good Place often appears to be at pains, through the magic of its afterlife setting, to gum up the works of sexual attraction: Chidi and Eleanor fall in love, and fall into bed, in more than one version of “The Good Place,” only to have their memories wiped clean when Michael begins anew; Tahani ends her dalliance with Jason not long after it begins, an interregnum in his own complicated relationship with Janet; even the extraordinary season finale, “Somewhere Else,” in which Chidi kisses Eleanor (hot diggity dog!) and requites her feelings, sends both back to square one—and out of the afterlife—almost immediately.

Friendships are no on-screen rarity; neither are friendships that become romantic or, less frequently, romances that become friendships. What is atypical is The Good Place’s depiction of the texture of our connections as a tangle, and not a hierarchical line; the keystone of its subtly moving edifice is its ardent belief in the “mates” half of “soul mates,” that when it comes to matters of the heart there are indeed “no fixed rules that work in every situation.” It is the value of our imperfections, the worth hidden even in our worst selves, that comes through most forcefully in the second season’s deepening friendships—the fact that Eleanor’s distrust, Chidi’s unanswerable questions, Tahani’s impulse to speak to the manager, and Jason’s love of Molotov cocktails are all, in the right context, not weaknesses but strengths.

By the time the snap of The Judge’s fingers sends the gang back to this mortal coil, monitored with such fondness by their newfound allies in the next life, The Good Place emerges as a masterfully constructed thought experiment in the meaning of friendship, of loyalty, of ineffable, indefinable love. As Chidi perceives in “The Burrito,” “if this isn’t a test, then it’s something way worse—a choice,” and what are our closest friends, our Eleanors and Chidis and Tahanis and Jasons, if not our chosen families, the reflection of the decisions that reveal our best selves? What we owe to each other, that notion with which the season begins and ends, is nothing more and nothing less than the leap into faith true connection requires, that bringing out the good in ourselves and seeing it in others, which for all intents and purposes amount to the same thing, will ultimately be enough. Despite the setting of its first two seasons, then, The Good Place seems to me to venture that there is no essence, no moral dessert—this existence is all there is, bearable only together, never alone.

I know this reading risks losing sight of the series’ wit, its joyousness, its effusive charm—risks emphasizing the edge of that exchange with Eleanor, my Eleanor, and not the return to equilibrium. But as I once wrote of another soul mate,

For a society that valorizes collecting “friends” and “followers,” “likes” and “favorites” and “shares,” we discuss the bared and grinding gears of true friendship all too rarely—the way it sneaks up on you, the way it moors you, the way it becomes, in certain iterations, as profound as romantic love and sometimes as troublesome. The way, in short, a person in the world becomes your person, and you theirs.

In this sense, The Good Place is a modern, manic reinterpretation of Sartre, if Sartre wrote sitcoms—a lively, merry, deliriously funny No Exit, suffused with new hope. Michael was right, after a fashion: The real Bad Place was the friends we made along the way, as were The Good Place and all the places in between, each contributing their warp and woof to the texture of our connections. Hell may be other people, as Sartre claimed, but heaven is other people, too.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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