Television Is Showing Us the Dark Side of Trying to Play God

  • Kristen Bell stars in the comedy “The Good Place.” MUST CREDIT: Colleen Hayes - NBC.

The Washington Post
Thursday, January 11, 2018

Theologians and other thinkers have described God in several ways over the centuries. God is a stern father. He’s a mechanistic prime mover. He’s a watchmaker. And, most recently, in the NBC sitcom The Good Place, God is a television showrunner.

Several recent TV programs suggest that creating a television show is a lot like creating the world. Small-screen hits like The Good Place, Westworld, American Gods and Blood Drive tease out the idea that there’s something divine about television. They acknowledge that the idiot box has become an idol — for better or worse.

Now in the middle of its second season, NBC’s The Good Place, Michael Schur’s comedy about the afterlife, makes this dynamic particularly clear. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up to find herself in heaven, or the Good Place. Though Michael (Ted Danson), the angel architect of the Good Place, thinks Eleanor is a selfless humanitarian who spent her life fighting for the poor and needy, she knows she’s there because of a glitch. (On Earth, she was a self-centered jerk who sold fake supplement pills to the sick and elderly.)

The first season of the show is devoted to Eleanor’s efforts to stay in the Good Place; she tries to become a better person by studying ethics with her maybe soul mate, the sweet, indecisive professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper).

In the Good Place, Michael runs the show, creating a small neighborhood out of nothing, ensuring that every blade of grass and every frozen yogurt stand are in place. He chooses the inhabitants of his neighborhood via an elaborate ranking system based on the residents’ lives on Earth. (Life is, it turns out, one long audition: Hold a door open for someone, you gain points; attend a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, you’re out.)

In the hereafter, Michael sets up narrative threads, matches soul mates together, and tries to make sure everyone is happy eternally. God has a script and a story line; we’re all just actors in his divine plot arc. But Michael is less an all-seeing, all-powerful beneficence than he is a harried middle manager.

The mistake that placed Eleanor in the Good Place takes a toll on Michael’s careful construction. Giant ladybugs storm through the town and a giant sinkhole opens up, while Michael flaps and grouses and faces a retirement, which will involve eternal torture as he is burned on the surface of a million suns for failing to get his project right. Heavenly cancellation is no joke.

The twist in the season’s final episode (spoiler!) is that the cancellation isn’t heavenly at all. Michael isn’t a divine architect; he’s a demon. The Good Place is in fact the Bad Place. Eleanor isn’t in heaven as a mistake; she’s been in hell the whole time.

Michael placed her in a scenario where she thinks everyone is better than her, which is a form of personalized torture. After Eleanor figures out the plot, Michael erases her memories, and the memories of Eleanor’s companions, running them through endless retakes. Meanwhile, Michael’s minion demons get more and more restless and demand rewrites.

This vision of an evil, sadistic devil-God operating as a television creator is surprisingly common in contemporary television. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the robotics mastermind who creates the Western theme park in Westworld, is essentially a prestige television showrunner, orchestrating a ballet of death and sex and surprising plot twists with callous indifference.

Wednesday (Ian McShane), the trickster God Odin on American Gods, is more personable than Ford, but no less manipulative. He murders his lead actor’s wife to make sure he’ll take the part, using a combination of blarney and magic to set up bank robberies and wars. In Syfy’s sadly canceled Blood Drive, the rabid and immortal Julian Sink (Colin Cunningham) runs the reality television show of the same name, in which vile, vicious contestants race across a post-apocalyptic landscape, feeding their vehicles with blood.

In each of these shows, a powerful creator sets up a complex plot to torment humans for sadistic entertainment. This metaphorical setup presents television as a complicated and intricate act of creation, requiring a divine spark. But it’s a divine spark that panders to humanity’s worst impulses.

The divine plan, as seen on TV, is a world in which God designs fiendish plot arcs to eviscerate us all. Michael tells Eleanor and her friends that they’re cockroaches: Small, disgusting creatures that he delights in exterminating.

Religion used to provide society with a shared communal point of reference — a common well of stories and ethical examples. Now, that point of reference largely comes through popular entertainment in general, and television in particular.

The Good Place is a comedy, but it takes the ramifications of television as moral landscape seriously. Eleanor’s efforts to become less selfish and kinder seem straightforward, but other characters get into more intricate ethical issues.

Chidi, for example, ends up in the Bad Place because he’s so obsessed with being a moral person that he’s paralyzed with indecision. He’s so absorbed in doing the right thing that he can’t take the time to be kind, or even marginally humane, to others. Ethics without love is still sin — which is why, as Michael gleefully informs Chidi, all the philosophers from Kant to Foucault are in hell. (That’s an insight Christian author C.S. Lewis might have appreciated.)

But while The Good Place tries to take on religious themes, it’s also hesitant about its ability to do so. Michael, the architect, is a demon, and an incompetent demon at that. If God’s a showrunner, The Good Place says, we’re all in a lot of trouble — which, in fact, we are.