A bonzer contribution from one Sam Guthrie:

With seasons 1 and 2 of NBC’s The Good Place streaming on Netflix, Kristen Bell and gang bring the laughs with the show’s expository mirror reflecting the religiosity of our modern world. The Good Place follows the adventure of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) as she navigates her existence in the afterlife. The “paradise” where she finds herself is filled with happy souls, endless shrimp cocktail, and sunny skies. But something is amiss: Eleanor has made it to the good place on accident. Thanks to an oversight from the powers that be, a sinner walks among the saints with a looming dread that soon she will be found out. What ensues is Eleanor’s hilarious, covert journey to become a “better person” in order to stay in the good place. I’ll try my best to keep this free of spoilers but readers be warned.

IMAGE: RON BATZDORFF/NBC

The Good Place is chock-full of laughs like whenever Eleanor attempts to curse (in the good place, all swear words are revised to renditions like bull shirt and fork) or finding out the reasons people get sent to the bad place (e.g., most musicians, artists, and people who wear Bluetooth ear pieces). But the show really succeeds in all of the creative ways Eleanor tries to “prove” herself in the eyes of the community; each episode an exposé of the moral rat-race in which we readily exhaust ourselves. Along Eleanor’s journey, she meets a few unlikely friends that add to the hilarity. One of them is moral philosopher Chidi Anagonye who agrees to help Eleanor in her quest for self-betterment. For Chidi, the measuring stick of morality is theoretical. From his perspective, if a person thinks the right things and wrestles with the right questions, they will be deemed worthy. If Chidi can help Eleanor attain morality through philosophical and moral reasoning, then she will be deemed “good.”

The show’s conceptualization of morality succeeds in being totally absurd and yet strangely relatable. For instance, people enter the good place based on their score from Earth. For example, remembered your sister’s birthday: 15.02 points. Purified a water source: 295.98 points. Ate vegan: 425.94 points. Never discussed veganism unprompted: 9875.37 points. And the list goes on. Coming to find that everything in life is tallied is preposterous until we remember the score we keep internally, whether with friends, a spouse, or co-workers. Cleaning the dishes: 5.08 points. Making the bed: 2.10 points. Not replacing the poop bags for the dog: -20.30 points. And so on.

One of the characters in the show who is obsessed with the score is Tahani Al-Jamil, a British activist and model who flaunts her goodness and philanthropy for all to see. Tahani’s metric for morality, often like us, is a self-reported measurement. Early on in the show, Eleanor feels stuck in Tahani’s shadow — a shadow Tahani is all too ready to cast. What we come to learn, though, is that Tahani’s narcissism is mostly due to living in her overachieving sister’s shadow; her morality is fueled by the guilt of being second-best and by envy of her sister’s life. And to round out the expository on morality is goofball Jason Mendoza, whose only concerns are video games, his dance team, and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Even in the afterlife, Jason is oblivious to any concept of right or wrong. In a (very) laughable way, morality continually flies over his head. His lifestyle may as well be summed up as an “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow…we do it again and it’s going to be awesome!” mantra.

A friend recently shared an insightful observation with me. He said that as soon as we come out of the womb, we’re measured. We are given a weight and a height and a prediction of what our lives may turn out to be. And while this kind of measurement is helpful from a maturation standpoint, the measuring doesn’t stop. It only escalates. In The Good Place, it doesn’t even slow in the afterlife. And this is where the show has its finger directly on the pulse of humanity. Like many of the characters listed above, we too carry around a proverbial measuring stick that validates the good life. For some, the measuring stick always comes up short as imposter syndrome eats away when others appear more competent and put-together. For others, the ruler is theoretical and we convince ourselves that if we can think well and have the right intentions, we’ll find moral success. And if our measuring sticks aren’t being used to shame us of our shortcomings, they’re used as weapons to condemn those who most assuredly fall short of where we stack up. And among all of the show’s hilarious examples, none is more telling than in the foolishness of Jason Mendoza. For like Jason, what we share is what we often forget. That is, the anvil of sin (Rom 6:23) is constantly confused for a feather. That, or our notion of sin is simplified to a sliding scale of what we do (or don’t) do instead of considering its permeating, damning corrosion.

And I think that’s what makes The Good Place so, well, good. The writers identified the human tragedy of moral orthodoxy and made it into a comedy. The laughs are liberating because they name our foolishness and pinpoint the hilarity of siloing people into good and bad boxes by what they do. The Good Place, not unlike the Christian story, is one of a tragedy turned comedy. But the conclusion Christians draw is not a utopian cornucopia of religious belief and moral ethic; it actually has nothing to do with us. What transforms the Christian story from a tragedy to a comedy is when Jesus made holiness earthy, fulfilled the law, was crushed by the weight of sin, and resurrected for all of the shirt-heads, drama queens, and Jacksonville Jaguars fans. This good news is bewildering and often leads us, like many on The Good Place, to question what we can do to inherit eternal life. But the good news wouldn’t be good if we could follow a blueprint. The good news is good and is continually made better by knowing that we are loved unconditionally; whether we wear a bluetooth earpiece, microwave leftover seafood, or fall short of any earthly requirement that we or others deem worthy. Through Jesus, we have entered into his sabbath rest. As theologian truck-driver Chad Bird so eloquently says:

“The only day in creation God called holy is the one on which he commanded us to do nothing. Implicit in that command is that holiness is a gift, not an achievement. On that day we remember that being human does not mean doing great things for God and thereby becoming holy. It means resting in the great work of Christ, who makes us holy, who is our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). He has done all the labor of our salvation, has waged and won our battles for us.”