Current Network Shows · On Netflix

NBC’s The Good Place is Crude but Valuable

Catholic-perspective review on NBC's Kristen Bell Sitcom The Good Place

Disclaimer: I’ve only seen season 1 of “The Good Place” so far.. Hurry up and get season 2, Netflix!

When NBC first premiered its comedy starring Kristen Bell as a girl who’s made it to the “Good Place” after death, I gave the pilot a shot and then quickly gave up.

While the premise was at least somewhat intriguing, I was totally hung up on things like, “This is so theologically incorrect! I hope people don’t think this is what Heaven really is…” And I concluded that the show’s purpose was probably to make a mockery of the Christian concept of life after death.

But in the time since the show premiered in fall of 2016, I’ve repeatedly heard people praising it. Like Catholic people. I was so confused. What had I missed?

I finally asked the question on my Facebook page, and I was met with a ton of positive responses to that question. It seemed I had missed out after all, by writing it off so quickly. So I gave it another chance.

A Pretty Weird Premise

Kristen Bell’s character Eleanor has died and now finds herself in this office-like area with a sign that reads, “Everything is Fine.” And then she meets Michael, an “architect,” who gives her details of how all this works (including some not-so-fun tidbits on how all the world’s major religions, including Christianity, got parts of the afterlife right and parts of it wrong…). He tells her people are assigned to the Good Place or the Bad Place according to the actions they performed while living on earth.

The major twist, though, is that we quickly learn Eleanor has been sent here by mistake. She was no saint while on earth, not even close.

And so, she faces the dilemma of how to stay here, blend in with all these good people, and not get sent to her deserved spot in the Bad Place.

There’s a Bit to Get Past

So I initially got hung up on the obvious, “That’s not what the afterlife is!” aspect. That’s one issue a Catholic might have with this show. But bear with it. Treat it like the fantasy it is. I found that, as the details got more outlandish, the danger of an average viewer actually thinking this might be what the afterlife is like decreased quite a bit. 

But there are some other issues that could make a Catholic balk. It is really quite raunchy. I think perhaps the crude jokes chafe a bit more, given the setting of a supposed-Heaven. But on an objective level I think its raunchy jokes are a bit more frequent and consistent than on a show like “The Office” or “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” (Incidentally, this show is created by one of the creators of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” who also played Dwight’s weird cousin Mose on “The Office” … I kid you not).

There’s some mildly crude stuff — like when Eleanor tries to swear and it comes out as, “Holy shirt!” and “what the fork?” That I don’t mind. But there’s quite a bit of sexual humor, including about deviant sexual stuff, that’s a bit more uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s to a point, the point being, “Wow, Eleanor really was pretty bad on earth and totally shouldn’t be in the Good Place!” And sometimes it’s a little excessive. 

The Moral Value

This is a show that literally hinges on the question of what it means to be a good person. And not in the abstract, “Oh I’ll just be nice…” kind of way. Rather, it looks at the question in light of, “Is this something that merits eternal damnation?” And “What can I do to deserve eternal happiness?”

Now obviously, it’s missing a lot of the fullness that the Catholic faith lends to the answers of these questions. But to see a fictional show that entertains such questions and forces viewers to think about what a person deserves for good and bad, even in the scope of these weird fake characters… it’s really something remarkable. And it does so in such an entertaining, completely non-preachy way that I can easily imagine a religion-adverse person watching it and starting to ponder things.

Over All

This is not a show for everybody. Some Catholics might get sick of the crude jokes pretty quickly, and some of us are going to feel a little squirmy at the gross theological inaccuracies.

But I do think this show has a lot of value. Whether Mose from “The Office” was starting from a religious motivation or not, the result is a show that really has the ability to worm its way into viewers’ minds and consciences. 

P.S., If you’re into podcasts and love this show, you should check out this podcast about “The Good Place” from a Catholic viewpoint, by Catholic blogger Kate Hendrick of Stumbling Toward Sainthood and her husband Ben.

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