‘The Good Place’ Imagines an Eternity of Ethics Lessons

The NBC comedy serves up an unusual take on the afterlife with a side of fro-yo, hold the religion.

[written for Christianity Today, you can start the article here and read the rest on their homepage.]

From time to time, popular culture weighs in with advice about the afterlife. “You can’t take it with you,” admonishes the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by the same title. A popular ’50s polka warns that “in heaven there is no beer.” According to NBC’s The Good Place there is, however, a copious amount of frozen yogurt.

The Good Place, now hitting its mid-season stride, is the latest TV comedy from writer/producer Michael Shur—also creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and a writer on The Office. Shur’s wit and his penchant for strongly drawn characters feel familiar. The new series makes a strong break from his run of workplace comedies, however, by setting its storyline in heaven.

Or a version of heaven. Simply called “The Good Place,” it’s an afterlife that exists without a relationship to any of the world’s religions, all of which failed to rightly imagine how to enter the hereafter. Instead a complex logarithm narrows down those granted eternity in The Good Place, admitting only the most elite among do-gooders, activists, and philanthropists. While the series forgoes the concepts of sin and religion per se, it regularly relies on ethical lessons in the hereafter.

This potentially weighty narrative tactic is lightened by the whimsical aesthetic and quirky details of life in The Good Place. The architect behind this particular neighborhood of the afterlife is a supernatural being named Michael (Ted Danson, his impeccable comic timing in force). Obsessively detailed and fascinated by human culture, Michael has worked painstakingly to optimize his corner of the afterlife for his charges’ happiness.

Upon arrival, every one is granted a mansion of their dreams and introduced to their true soul mate. Residents pass their days acquiring skills like learning how to fly or being treated to a perfect re-creation of their favorite earthly meal ever. They also enjoy unlimited frozen yogurt in hundreds of unlikely flavors.

                                   NBC Universal

Nonetheless, something is amiss in this corner of eternal happily ever after. That something is a someone named Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell, more charming as the episodes stack up), who was, among other things, a snake-oil marketer, litterbug, and generally unreliable friend back on Earth.

Admitted to heaven in an unexplained mix-up, Eleanor finds that Michael has her name right, but all the other details of her biography wrong. Now Eleanor must deceive her way through this do-gooders afterlife, trying to keep up a charade of saintliness to avoid being found out and sent to The Bad Place.

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Get Clued In

Clue (film)
Clue (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1985, the movie Clue managed to something  incredibly difficult: it turned a classic board game into a compelling movie.  Simply making flattering comparisons between it and the Rhianna-fied Battleship is too low a bar.  Instead, consider how impressive it is that Clue succeeded in translating a roll-the-dice-and-move, logical deduction game into a story more watchable than the spate of films based on mission-driven video games (e.g., Prince of Persia, Hitman, Max Payne). Continue reading Get Clued In

The Pope has retired. Long live the Pope.

Today felt like a day to recommend some papal pop culture…

Pope Benedict has announced his retirement–a rare event.  1978 marked another rare moment in Vatican history: the Catholic Church had three popes in one year.  Popes were dropping like flies.  After the death of Pope Paul VI on August 6, the newly elected Pope John Paul I served a mere 33 days before suffering a fatal heart attack on September 29. 

Which brings me to Foul Play.  Released in July of 1978–just a month before the popes started dying–the film follows a hapless librarian (Goldie Hawn) and a San Francisco cop (Chase) who become the last line of defense against a plot to assassinate the Pope.   How odd is that?

No odder than the film itself.   A comically alchemical festival of absurdities complete with a Barry Manillow soundtrack, Foul Play works something like one part mystery, one part hairy dog tale, and one part romantic comedy.  This whodunnit (or whoisplanningtodunnit) movie incorporates a classic San Francisco car chase, an albino hitman, a dwarf Bible salesman, and a striptease by Dudley Moore into its quest to save the Pope.