The Ultimate Lesson of ‘The Good Place’: Change Is REALLY Hard

The genius of 'The Good Place' is its inherent understanding of what 'hell' actually means: confrontation with our worst fears.

William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, Kristen Bell as Eleanor and Manny Jacinto as Jason in The Good Place. Colleen Hayes/NBC

Given the reputation The Good Place has already earned, it feels weird to argue this show is somehow underrated. And yet, it is. The popular, high-concept sitcom from Michael Schur is armed to the teeth with incredible writers like Megan Amram, Jen Statsky, Joe Mande, Matt Murray, Alan Yang and so many more. It’s thoughtful, hilarious, brazen and basically the pinnacle of what this form of TV can offer. Even the conceit is brilliant: a terrible person accidentally gets into heaven and hijinks ensue. But that’s just the starting off point; this is a show that evolves into something so much more—a perfect way to explore the endless permutations of human nature and morality.

Now, if you’ve heard all these good things and somehow been putting it off, get caught up before it returns on September 27. The entire show is on Netflix. It’s two quick seasons, and each episode is only 22 minutes each. Go watch it. Come back changed. Done? Good. Because we’re going deep-dive into this sucker and examine not only the brilliant things it corrects about writing and character arcs, but how it addresses our true capacity for human growth.

The Mission

It feels reductive to say The Good Place is a show about change. In fact, it’s a show about how human beings actually change. There is nothing simple here. It painstakingly examines the varied situations, people and circumstances that can propel us into making the decision to get better, do better and be better, along with acknowledging all the same things that make us stick in our ruts, sour on humanity and drag the world down with us. To be human often means being caught between these two states of existence. We crash recklessly between our most noble, loving selves and our most selfish desires so often, that we can’t help but excel while falling victim to our faults. In truth, this is all part of the hard-wiring that comes with different upbringings—we become slaves to our original mentalities. But there’s a quote from the show that sticks out in my head, which is simply this: “It’s hard to change all at once.”

This “change is hard” mantra is something we give a little lip service to, but when it comes to how storytelling and humanity actually behave, we rarely back up, which is telling. In so many relationships, the act of saying sorry is largely performative. We apologize and go right back to circular, destructive behaviors, often in co-dependent cycles. In the public sphere, popular male entertainers eke out one, half-hearted mea culpa and then try to strut back into public life as if nothing is different. These are giant, systemic problems deserving of their own analysis by people far more attune to it than I. Moreover, I want to make it clear that I’m not comparing the indelible strife of being marginalized and victimized with a conversation about The Good Place, which is ultimately a sitcom full of likable people we are meant to root for. What I mean to point out is how this show takes up the charge that change is painstaking labor, full of difficult choices and sacrifice, while most other forms of storytelling want to tell you that change is easy.

In fact, that’s actually one of the core tenets of writing. We call them “character arcs,” and they’re the streamlined, easy-to-digest notion of how characters can grow and get better. Part of that streamlining is the inherent fact that you’re dealing with a windowed time frame where you have to convey a lot of information and growth in a short amount of story. But when done really well, a good character arc can be moving and heart-breaking in equal measure. It can also be deeply valuable. But let me sum up the character arcs in most movies: 1) A character has a problem. 2) They identify that problem, then sit around with it for two-thirds of the film. 3) At the end, they just either decide to be better or rise to the occasion, usually to beat up a bad guy or stand up for themselves, and it is as if all their problems are magically solved. End story. They’re good now. Everything’s fine. Move along.

D'Arcy Carden as Janet and Kristen Bell as Eleanor in The Good Place.
D’Arcy Carden as Janet and Kristen Bell as Eleanor in The Good Place. Colleen Hayes/NBC

There is an obvious, inherent lie to this. Not only is change hard, but real growth goes back and forth a lot. I’m not saying you have to dramatize that, because it often derails narrative economy, but more that meaningful growth takes constant failure, along with learning from mistakes, which you should absolutely dramatize. Because mistakes force us to reckon with our behavior. And real change is about experiencing “the death of the old self,” leaving our old hard-wiring behind and showcasing a new self that is not just about getting a different result, but having a different outlook all together. Like the constant desire to be better, no matter if you keep failing along the way.

Which helps reveal the genius of The Good Place’s structure. By turning their hell-laden adventures into an endless series of trials, it mimics something more closely related to the Hindu idea of reincarnation. Where, by cycling through endless lives, we slowly gain more sentience and attain more karma, all en route to moksha, or what you might also call nirvana or enlightenment, but really it’s the release from the cycle of rebirth. These cycles are what our human foursome must constantly face in their journey through hell. But what’s also genius about this conceit is the inherent understanding of what “hell” actually means: confrontation with our worst fears. It is in this confrontation that we come to grips with a Catch-22. Because confronting our worst fears only happens to be the single most important part of genuine change.

We’ll come back to that notion in a minute, but the second most important part about change is understanding how our environment and systems affect us. Which brings us to the other way The Good Place counters one of the most assumed tenets of basic writing. We think of character arcs as these deeply internal things that are locked in our characters’ brains, as if they were a mere series of addition and subtraction of qualities. But it’s not. Real psychological change is ultimately interdependent on the other “characters” in our lives.

We are not in this alone.

The Players

It’s safe to say that the characters in this show represent an embarrassment of riches. Starting with our four central, hell-bound humans. First, there’s Kristen Bell’s Eleanor, a foul-mouthed, destructive lout who will lash out at a moment’s notice. It’s important to realize that Eleanor is not truly evil. Yes, she displays malice, but it’s often just petty and self-centered. She still has a conscience, which is probably what keeps her from victimizing others in a truly criminal way. Well, sort of. I’m more trying to point out how good the show is at toeing the line and finding affinity and humor in her unique brand of horribleness. Like how all her hilarious hypotheticals are always real things she’s done. Eleanor can be self-effacing, likable, charming and attractive, but she just reverts when she feels threatened, which is often. But in many ways, this makes her the perfect vehicle for examining real change.

Filling out the group of humans there are Eleanor’s three companions. Tahani is the name-dropping, obsessed-with-appearances British socialite who lives in the shadow of her younger sister. She has thus learned the art of producing an ego-pumping veneer of being charitable, along with mastering the backhanded compliment. Then there’s Jason Mendoza, the astoundingly dumb, child-like wrecking ball who can’t help but be infectious and pity-inducing all at once (I also have to commend Manny Jacinito and the writers, because this character is an Asian-American stereotype-erasing treasure, and I wish I loved anything as much as he loves the Jaguars). And lastly, there is Chidi, the polite, ethics-obsessed teacher who never wants to do the wrong thing and thus never realized that his indecision and inability to commit has made everyone else around him miserable.

Manny Jacinto as Jason and Jameela Jamil as Tahani in The Good Place. Colleen Hayes/NBC

What makes this group so important is that they all represent different kinds of moral intent. Eleanor is all about open hostility and malice, while Tahani deals in the delusion and hypocrisy of thinking she’s a great person. Meanwhile, Chidi never wants to hurt a soul, and Jason is probably too ignorant to know when he actually does. Between the four of them, there is a staggering difference of intent. But there is no staggering difference when it comes to the damage they’ve caused with their behavior. And in life, there is nothing more important than the damage we cause.

Reflexively, this shines a light on the two central non-humans of the show, who are, somehow, even more of a delight. Ted Danson’s Michael at first seems to be our well-meaning guardian angel, but when his demonic deviousness comes out of the shadows, we come to understand the real scope of the show. His grand plan is simple: torturing humans by letting them torture each other through their diametric opposites. And good granola do we have to take a second to acknowledge that Ted Danson is having fun with this role and probably doing the best work of his career. Not only is he having a blast spiting humans with disaffected whimsy, but he’s somehow even more fun when his proverbial wings get clipped and he has to try to grapple with the consequences of his demonic actions.

But the real revelation of The Good Place might be D’Arcy Carden as Janet. This goofy magic robot (“not a robot”) is just one of the show’s great vessels for absurdity, and reveals Carden’s incredible timing. Janet is at once achingly human and unhuman, sentient yet obedient and capable of anything, including creating her own temporary rebound boyfriend in Derek (“Derek!?”). But even while being an automaton, she’s had her own evolution. From falling in love with Jason, to the realization that they literally stole her, a “good Janet,” from heaven, she comes to face something remarkable. Because what Michael and Janet’s stories represent are the same ethical questions we are asking of our human foursome, just through the most extreme angle possible: How does a demon bent on evil learn to have soul? And how does an A.I. built to serve and be obedient learn what it means to be human?

Within those parameters, these six characters clash together in endless trials. But this also stands as another great lesson of writing, because it shows that good conflict, of course, also creates growth. Which reminds me of something Phil Lord said that I think about all the time: “movies are about relationships.” It’s simple, but it’s forehead-slappingly correct. Writers, like humans, get so busy thinking in terms of internal arcs, as if problems are just endlessly locked in our brains. And thus other people just become conduits for us to work out our own shit. But no, our stories are really about our relationships. Or at least should be. But when it comes to psychology, there are two kinds of relationships therein…

The first are the ones that form us—our systems of creation. And understanding the source of trauma is paramount to understanding the source of our pain. Because those are our gaping wounds that most need to be healed. This is something the show is still exploring, as if peeling back the layers of an onion. Because it’s not just the question of “Who is Eleanor?” but “Why is Eleanor?” And this season we got a look at her relationship with her mother, an alcoholic who tried to lie about killing her dog and then told her she was not allowed to cry over it. “The important thing is, don’t be sad!”

That’s a hell of a lot of repression to deal with. And for Tahani, she has a similar parental wound, just in a different form. Her conflict is best represented in the moment where she is required to walk down a hallway full of people saying what they really think about her (all to pass a very important test). She passes by every other door, but simply has to go into her parents’ room to confront them. Because their adoration of her sister, their lack of approval of her, that’s the source of almost every horrible instinct in her body.

Anna Khaja as Manisha Al-Jamil, Jameela Jamil as Tahani and Ajay Mehta as Waqas Al-Jamil in The Good Place. Colleen Hayes/NBC

Then for Jason? Well, we haven’t dug too deep, but every time we get a funny line about his childhood it’s as if he grew up raised by no one, incredibly poor, the embodiment of the latchkey kid. So of course he has no understanding of consequence. He’s literally had no guidance in his life. How could he? Then finally with Chidi, we haven’t actually been given a look at his original traumas yet, just some examples of the traumas as they existed in childhood—the youthful pressures and anxiety of not being able to participate in society the same way that everyone else could. But these issues of origin are only half the equation to growth. Because while these relationships hard-wire us, it is our later relationships that help us transcend the bounds of that same hard-wiring.

They were put together to torture each other, but Chidi’s inherent will to do good (and ability to teach and speak clearly about ethics) is precisely what activates and elevates Eleanor’s conscience. Likewise, Eleanor’s pushy nature is precisely what can sometimes push Chidi into action. Jason is everything Tahani has been taught not to value: uneducated, uncultured, unthinking. But his fun-loving, devil-may-care attitude is also inspiration to her. Because Jason isn’t worried about what other people think of him, or even really aware. And in that space Tahani can truly cut loose and come to understand what she thinks about herself. And for Jason? What Tahani and the others continue to give him is the gift of awareness. This system, designed to be torture, is in effect, also doing the opposite: they are forcing each other to confront their deepest issues and learn the exact alternative way of thinking.

Which not only highlights the importance of getting outside of ourselves, but “centering” ourselves in a state of balance. Yes, we all want love, but we’re all hard-wired with a value system and love language that teaches us something that will always be unbalanced. As David Foster Wallace argued, “Whatever we worship will never be enough.” Eleanor was taught to take from others. Tahani was taught only appearances matter. Chidi was taught to never, ever do harm. Jason was taught to never think. And when those systems become worshipped, there is always a way they will do harm. And we will always keep chasing them, because it is easier to believe one day they will work (or merely allow us to get by) instead of facing the incredible difficulty of change itself. We have to stop worshipping that which will never be enough.

They also have to understand that, of course, there are good parts to all their psychologies, parts that can serve as valuable lessons for one another. Eleanor fights for her selfhood. Chidi is kind and considerate. Tahani is charitable and wants to excel. Jason loves to have fun and enjoy the moment. All of these qualities have immeasurable value, but more to others than to themselves (because they already know it so clearly). So the way they get more “in balance,” in terms of self, is in learning from one another. Which makes Michael’s entire plan not just deeply ironic, but also related to a simple truth: by bringing them together, he taught them to find balance. But again, like everything in this show, it’s not quite that simple. Change doesn’t work like magic. And it can keep going out of balance as people can keep reverting. Particularly because human beings seem to be experts in knowing exactly what we are supposed to do, while still being so wretched at actually doing it. Which is why all of this goes deeper. To the core concepts of our existence. And for that…

We must turn to our non-humans.

The Deepest Obstacles

What is it that makes someone actually care about another person?

I’m not sure this is something people actually think about a whole lot. It’s more something felt. We care about this person. We don’t care about that person. We have our reasons and that’s that! But if you’re really examine the different kinds of human relationships we have, you can imagine them sitting on a radius of proximity going from the most inward to the most outward. There are levels to it. First is caring about ourselves in the here in now, then probably caring about ourselves in the future. But then you stretch it out to caring about loved ones, then caring about friends, caring about acquaintances, etc. From there you can care for strangers, and then maybe “everyone” in the world—including the guilty, those who have caused hurt or those you might even see as less than. Loving those in close proximity to us may seem both obvious and easy, but that just means the real question is, how do we traverse humanity to get to the point where we care about a stranger?

Kristen Bell as Eleanor and Ted Danson as Michael in The Good Place.
Kristen Bell as Eleanor and Ted Danson as Michael in The Good Place. Colleen Hayes/NBC

It’s a concept that’s actually best explored through Michael. Simply put, he’s a demon. Everything in his value system is built off taking delight in the torture of human beings. He is schadenfreude and misanthrope personified (to the point that he actually has to remember that “people = good” in his ethics lessons). There is not one ounce of humanity in him. So how do you create that humanity? Well, first you have to remove the notion of immortality. Because how can you care about life, existence, others or even yourself when there are no consequences? Chidi confronts him over the very concept, but Michael’s always been so good and dutiful at being evil (his own hard-wiring) that he’s never actually thought about the “final punishment” for bad demons—where every atom of his matter is split and put in a different star. It is in realizing this possibility that this immortal being understands he could, effectively speaking, die.

Michael seizes up immediately, like gaunt cartoon. “Me!?!? No!?!?!?!?” The very idea that he could somehow not exist paralyzes him. But the idea of “living” is so innate to so many people that even though it terrifies us to the very bone, we have to keep living, don’t we? So Michael finally snaps out of it and immediately transitions into “mid-life crisis” mode, which is really just the shark-like act of partying and diving at life so you don’t have to think about the void inside. But as Chidi tells us when Eleanor thinks he’s doing all right, “life is absurd and absurdity needs to be confronted, this is just denial.” And I actually think about the many ways this denial manifests in our society.

Particularly with the kinds of people attracted to thrill seeking and death-defying activities. I remember witnessing the Jackass gang’s reaction to the death of their friend Ryan Dunn (who, to be clear, was drunk driving at 140 mph and killed a young production assistant along with himself). The reactions of the group were not just that of great sadness, nor horror that he cost someone else their life. It was as if they could not even understand the concept and weight of death itself, nor the notion of responsibility along with it. Which might seem odd for a group that was immortalized for their constant, reckless, death-defying behavior. But this highlights the exact human complex that is also at the heart of the mid-life crisis. It’s not that you’re trying to chase after death or in love with it. It’s that you’re constantly trying to prove death wrong. And the more you succeed, the more it seems impossible. But that is a game that no human will ever win. We simply have to accept the limits of mortality.

But when accepting those limits, it thus brings us to the question of heaven, which is really just a big metaphor for the “moral dessert.” That is, the belief that in order to want to do the right thing, you must be rewarded for doing so. You need the proverbial cookie. With that, moral dessert has a flip-side, which is also negative consequences. After all, hell and heaven are a tandem and both notions have a profound effect on us. These are systems that govern our behavior, rules, laws and ordinance. When I think about the show’s first season, I think about the small ways Eleanor changed merely because of the way she had to “act” like a good person in heaven. But such rewards and punishments are also limited to the systems around us. And when we only think in terms of those systems, we’ll constantly try to find ways to cheat that system instead of really confronting what’s going on within.

Because real change is not centered around result, but conscience. Michael may be saddled in his partnership with the humans because he doesn’t want to be punished, but real change comes through doing good, whether we are rewarded or not. The true difference of right and wrong is seen in how we treat the other regardless of what we get from it, especially if we lose. And for that, we often have to grapple with the nature of consequence. Because the real damage of hurting other people comes when you understand it as if it were happening to you. When Michael comes to grips with this notion, he can’t help but admit, “I also learned the error of my ways. Real rock bottom for a demon, I’ll tell you.” But this reveals the heart of such a lesson. To have an actual consequence, there has to be someone who we genuinely care about enough in order to fear losing them.

Behold, empathy. The simple notion of how we see the “us” in everyone else. Getting there takes time. It takes repetition. It takes learning to see a stranger who is having a tough time the same way you would can see a family member. It’s part of the reason the show kept coming back again and again to “The Trolley Problem” and its endless permutations. It’s not a riddle with an answer. It’s a prism that tells us how we see humanity and those we have empathy for. And it’s no accident that Michael’s first genuine, true moment of empathy comes for Janet. She was not only the closest in proximity, but they experienced so much together. She is his first, genuine friend. It doesn’t matter that she’s a blissful robot (not a robot) from heaven. In fact, that very fact is simply the thing he needs to learn to find his own balance: selflessness. And it is there, at its greatest point, where you find the pinnacle empathy: love. This is where those levels of proximity are inverted and you put someone else’s needs directly before your own.

Kristen Bell as Eleanor and William Jackson Harper as Chidi in The Good Place. Colleen Hayes/NBC

And that’s what we get in Michael’s final act in Season 2 of pushing of Eleanor toward the judge instead of going himself. This is his act of love—a moment of pure sacrifice and the only solution to his own unique trolley problem. There is no reward, in fact there is only great consequence. But it is the act that also reveals the pinnacle of balance that all human beings want to achieve: to care and to be cared for. And now, as Eleanor and the humans return to earth, he gets to finally play the role of his namesake: Michael, the guardian angel. Helping to nudge her along in her second go round of the mortal coil, he gives Eleanor the kind of care she never got before. He’s a solace, exorcising her of her systems of negativity and pushing her into the positivity of a philosophy that balances her. With that, she walks into Chidi’s office. It’s part of a cycle they’ve repeated many times before. In operating from the heart of empathy…

Michael will help them find balance.

The Practical Applications of Moral Philosophy

So while I was writing about this I had a couple of anxiety attacks. This isn’t anything new. I was reliving some trauma rooted in two moral circumstances. One has to do with the trauma of inexorable guilt and my own shortcomings—the kind where even if you don’t have malice, you can still create bad results. The other was from one the most infinitely complex moral situations I’ve ever experienced, particularly when it comes to layers of proximity and where I felt I was wrong no matter what I did. These are both situations where pain, love, empathy and consequence go in all directions. And thus, our reactions tend to exist across the human spectrum.

Sometimes I go into a kind of emotional paralysis, tapping my inner-Chidi, unable to progress because of the belief that everything I do could be wrong and everyone hates me. Sometimes I tap into my inner Tahani and I put up the front of appearing like everything is fine, or I play a role. Sometimes I’m Jason, trying to forget my troubles completely. Sometimes I’m Eleanor, locating my inner anger and fight for selfhood, with the unfortunate resentment that comes along with it. I do all these things because I’m a human being. And because, ultimately, The Good Place is just a metaphor.

I mean, unless Doug Forcett was indeed 92 percent correct, this version of the afterlife on display is not real. We have to live a life where resets don’t come with a snap of the fingers, but through consequences that are much harder to undo. But that doesn’t mean the lessons at the heart of these resets are dishonest. Quite the opposite, in fact. While most art creates the narrative that change is easy, The Good Place puts me far more in touch with the stark reality of life’s complexities. It helps me realize the ways I operate within a reward system, and that my own worst behaviors came out of situations where there were no consequences, all while always, patiently, lovingly reminding me that there “there is no all at once.”

Moksha? Heaven? Transcendence? They are ideas. Maybe even simple moral desserts. But the lessons of this show, along with our humanity, lie within the deep pain that we either feel or ignore. It lies in the understanding of our hard-wiring—the listening to the voice in the back of our heads. The understanding of consequence. The willingness to emote. The act of sacrifice not when it is easy, but when it is difficult. This is the constant reminder of the thing we need to keep coming back to: change is fucking hard. To undo selfhood and embrace the more fair and loving systems of balance takes proverbial lifetimes within our experience. But when you start getting there? When you have the ability to feel it, recognize it and see it in another? Well, you start to come to a suddenly, lovely, undeniable realization.

Love can be so much easier.

< 3 HULK

The Ultimate Lesson of ‘The Good Place’: Change Is REALLY Hard