January 12, 2018


Television Is Showing Us the Dark Side of Trying to Play God (Noah Berlatsky, 1/11/18, The Washington Post)

In each of these shows, a powerful creator sets up a complex plot to torment humans for sadistic entertainment. This metaphorical setup presents television as a complicated and intricate act of creation, requiring a divine spark. But it's a divine spark that panders to humanity's worst impulses.

The divine plan, as seen on TV, is a world in which God designs fiendish plot arcs to eviscerate us all. Michael tells Eleanor and her friends that they're cockroaches: Small, disgusting creatures that he delights in exterminating.

Religion used to provide society with a shared communal point of reference -- a common well of stories and ethical examples. Now, that point of reference largely comes through popular entertainment in general, and television in particular.

The Good Place is a comedy, but it takes the ramifications of television as moral landscape seriously. Eleanor's efforts to become less selfish and kinder seem straightforward, but other characters get into more intricate ethical issues.

Chidi, for example, ends up in the Bad Place because he's so obsessed with being a moral person that he's paralyzed with indecision. He's so absorbed in doing the right thing that he can't take the time to be kind, or even marginally humane, to others. Ethics without love is still sin -- which is why, as Michael gleefully informs Chidi, all the philosophers from Kant to Foucault are in hell. (That's an insight Christian author C.S. Lewis might have appreciated.)

But while The Good Place tries to take on religious themes, it's also hesitant about its ability to do so. Michael, the architect, is a demon, and an incompetent demon at that. If God's a showrunner, The Good Place says, we're all in a lot of trouble -- which, in fact, we are.

There is hardly a more enduring theme in Western literature (and sadly in human reality) than that attempts to create utopia end in dystopia. Television and film repeat the trope because it's a Puritan Nation.

Posted by at January 12, 2018 7:43 AM