Tara Isabella Burton on How Millennial Morality Lends ‘the Good Place’ Its Theology — and Popularity

The cast of “The Good Place” on NBC. Photo courtesy of NBC Universal

Tara Isabella Burton, who received a doctorate in theology from Oxford University, is at work on a book about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in America, to be published in November 2020 by Public Affairs. Her novel, “Social Creature,” was published in June 2018.

Last week, CBS’ afterlife sitcom “The Good Place” debuted its fourth and final season. The story of four recently departed, morally in-between millennials (and one soft-hearted demon), “The Good Place” is at once a story about religion and about secular morality: an ironically fantastical story about what it means to live in a time of moral and theological uncertainty.

Back when the show started, our anti-heroine, bona fide Bad Person Eleanor Shellstropp (Kristen Bell), had just been killed in a freak shopping cart accident. Due to what appeared to be a case of mistaken identity, she was assigned not to the richly deserved Bad Place but to its Stepford-suburban opposite: a peaceful Good Place in which, it seemed, everybody was far more Good than she was, especially her prescribed soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a neurotic moral philosophy professor, and her neighbors Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a lifelong philanthropist, and Jason (Manny Jacinto), a Buddhist monk.

Eleanor spends most of the first season trying desperately to hide the fact that she’s not a good person, corralling Chidi into teaching her philosophy and becoming an actually better person along the way.

Only — spoiler alert for those still on season one — the whole thing was a setup. They were in the Bad Place all along. Their shared imposter syndrome was a form of punishment. Each of them was, according to the rules of the afterlife, a Bad Person. Upstanding Chidi lets his neurosis get in the way of the needs of others. Tahani’s philanthropic acts mask profound self-loathing and solipsism. And Jason isn’t a Buddhist monk at all but is instead a pathologically vacant stoner from Florida. 

Over the show’s second and third seasons, our heroes explore the Bad Place, the Medium Place, and Earth itself, trying to find a way first to get into the Good Place and then — when all hope seems lost — stop others from going to the Bad Place by preaching a gospel of morality — albeit one that’s largely denuded of specific content: people are Good in “The Good Place” because they are good friends, because they put others first.

This theology — in which its heroes realize the failure of the existing system and advocate for its change — is a perfect fit for a millennial culture that increasingly demands a role in shaping the religious identities they are offered. Today’s millennials are looking for belief systems that are more individualistic and personally rooted than established institutions, and they tend to reject rules in favor of emotional authenticity and intuition.

But Eleanor and her outcasts become Good, too, for a more of-the-moment reason: because they deal with their own personal traumas and put the past behind them. They’re getting not just morality but therapy.

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Source: Religion News Service