The Unicorn Scale: The Good Place
With the second season premiere coming up on September 20th, I decided it would be fun to review the peppy but still heady, slightly dark “The Good Place.” After a tumultuous month of horrific political news, hurricanes, and the like, the cheery-sounding show from the mind of Michael Schur (“Parks and Rec,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) sounded like just the escapist fun I needed. But while it is cheerfully shot and thoughtfully put together, what surprised me was the slow but unmistakable growth of the character Eleanor, so I thought I would write about part of her journey here.
CAUTION: Here be spoilers, so don’t say I didn’t warn ya. Oh, and if you need a refresher on what the Unicorn Scale is all about, give this page a gander.
“The Good Place” takes on one of the most universal questions of humanity – “What happens after we die?” – and gives it a philosophical, comical twist. Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, finds herself plopped down in what she is informed is the Good Place, where good people go after they shuffled off their mortal coils. Eleanor gets shown around a pastel-hued wonderland where all new clothes fit perfectly and there is more frozen yogurt than you can shake a stick at. She even gets a soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper).
There’s just one problem. Eleanor got mixed up with another Eleanor and is not supposed to be in this section of the afterlife. But if she gets discovered, she’ll get sent to the Bad Place. As such, Eleanor wants to become a good enough person to deserve her coveted spot, so she enlists Chidi, a recently departed ethics professor, to help her become a better person – without getting caught.
What does all of this have to do with this website? Well, it turns out during the course of this season. Eleanor keeps mentioning the attractive qualities of her new frenemy, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and eventually realizes she is into her. Surprise bi! (Also: Interesting way to sidestep the #killyourgays problem – have a character realize they’re not straight only after they’ve died.)
What I Liked:
This is a super-fun show with a lot of philosophical debate and a dark undertone. The writing is sharp and plays with difficult ethical dilemmas, the ensemble displays incredible comedic timing, and the show still manages to deliver on laughs and a moral message. There is also a “Lost”-inspired structure to the discovery of the world (which Schur discussed with “Lost’s” creator Damon Lindelof before his network pitch to make sure he had a solid story). Each episode ends on some sort of cliffhanger, keeping audiences hooked. And Eleanor’s progression, both as a person as well as her attraction to Tahani, is subtle and believable. Eleanor has a pretty deplorable past, but she genuinely wants to improve herself – not only to keep her spot in the Good Place, but so she stops hurting the people she loves in her new reality.
I also really enjoyed the slow burn of Eleanor’s attraction to Tahani. At first I thought the continued asides to Tahani’s physical attributes would just be another running joke, because they didn’t seem to be attached to longing gazes or mentions of other same-sex attractions. In Eleanor’s flashbacks, if she was with anyone or talked about partners, they were males (though she never seemed terribly interested in them). And on top of that, the two female characters started to forge a decent friendship, devoid of sexual tension. So to see my suspicions not only confirmed in the season finale, but also not made a big deal out of (no emotional soliloquies, no dilemmas about what to do because Eleanor had bigger ethical fish to fry at the moment) was both vindicating and refreshing. The plot didn’t come to a screeching halt – she acknowledged her attraction and barreled on with her other philosophical revelations.
What I Didn’t Like:
Why-oh-why-oh-why-oh, can’t characters say they’re bi-oh? (Couldn’t resist.) There is such a rash of TV characters displaying bi attractions or histories but not calling the spade the spade! It is reaching the point of vexation. Is being bi the new “love that dare not speak its name?” It sure would be nice to see some characters own up to using the word for their orientation.
Also while the whole point of the show is to follow Eleanor’s progression as a person, she is by her own admission a terrible person. Not the best representative for bis out there. Also her attraction seems to be purely on a physical level considering her remarks, which leads to a more superficial representation.
Not only that, but there don’t seem to be many other LGBTQIA folx in this setting. That could be a good thing, though, since we discover this is actually the Bad Place, specifically designed to torture the four main characters. Since the rest of the characters are ostensibly helpers in putting up this evil façade, it may bode well that none of them are queer. So, it’s a bit of a toss-up.
Other than those hang-ups, this is a thoroughly enjoyable show. I haven’t a clue whether Eleanor will address this part of her heart (or downstairs brain) when she goes through the reset Good/Bad Place when she encounters Tahani again. It seems like it would still take a lot of emotional work for her to even get to the point of acknowledging her physical attraction, and Eleanor still has a lot of other emotional work to do. But since we are talking about an afterlife that supposedly stretches on for eternity, maybe Schur and the writers will get to it again. After all, there is an exquisite torture to not acting out our desires with people we are attracted to at times, right? Right.
This was a bit tough to suss out, but I’ll give Eleanor and the series two unicorns …. for now. Eleanor is far from being a saint, but she seems to have only discovered she is bi and is actively working to become a better person. She is a complex character full of multitudes who is both stubborn and willing to learn, so maybe in a season or two she can bump this rating up to three unicorns. But still – not a bad start for someone who figured out their attractions after they kicked the bucket.