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01/02/2018 4:04 AM AEDT

The Very Good Memes Of 'The Good Place'

The sitcom's endlessly quotable catchphrases give us a language to talk about our political reality. We’re literally in hell, but at least we can say it with a smile.

Colleen Hayes/NBC
The humans of NBC's "The Good Place": William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop, Manny Jacinto as Jianyu.

“Welcome! Everything is fine.”

So reads a large sign that faces Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) in the opening scene of the NBC sitcom “The Good Place.” Sitting in a nondescript lobby, she’s soon beckoned into an office where a man named Michael (Ted Danson), seemingly in charge of things, tells her that she’s dead. In fact, Eleanor died after being hit by a truck advertising an erectile dysfunction pill and has landed in the afterlife ― specifically, in the Good Place, a nondenominational version of what we might call “heaven.”

There’s just one problem: Eleanor isn’t the angelic human rights lawyer Michael thinks she is. During her lifetime, she actually peddled scam medication to senior citizens over the phone, so, she worries, she probably should have been sent to the Bad Place. Someone royally forked up. Oh, also, she can’t swear: In their neighborhood of the Good Place, the obscenities are converted into inoffensive phonetic siblings ― fork, shirt, bench ― since apparently the well-behaved residents don’t care for vulgarity.

For the meme-conscious, it should have been clear from that first moment that something would be rotten in the Good Place. “Everything is fine,” with its anxious and slightly defensive assurance, almost exactly echoes “This is fine,” a meme that originated in the webcomic “Gunshow” by K.C. Green in 2013. In the comic, a dog sits obliviously amid flames as the room he’s in burns down.

“This is fine,” the dog says. “That’s okay, things are going to be okay.”

Things rapidly devolve from “fine” to “maybe not fine” to “catastrophic” in “The Good Place.” (If you haven’t watched the show, be aware that this article contains major spoilers.) There, Eleanor meets her soulmate, Chidi, who was a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, and their neighbors, insecure socialite Tahani and Buddhist monk Jianyu. She quickly discovers that Jianyu represents another case of mistaken identity ― he’s actually Jason, a low-level criminal and professional amateur DJ from Florida. Eventually, she confides in Chidi, who undertakes to teach the seemingly misplaced Jason and Eleanor ethics so that they will be good enough people to stay. The stress of lying to Michael gnaws at his psyche the whole time.

At the end of the first season, though, everything changes. It turns out Michael is a demon, and he’s been torturing the four humans the whole time. The ambitious experiment was his brainchild, in which he hoped to goad Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason into tormenting one another for what he anticipated would be thousands of years. They were never in the Good Place at all. Cue Eleanor’s show-stopping revelation: “This is the Bad Place!”

And lo, a meme was born.

On liberal Twitter, Kristen Bell’s puckish face and raised finger, positioned above the words “This is the Bad Place!”, serve as a ubiquitous, catchall response to every new horrific bit of news out of the White House today. The phrase is both comically mild and comically extreme: We’re literally in hell, but we’re going to say it with a smile.  

It’s fitting that a sitcom would provide the meme for our new era, our reality-show presidency and our dystopian political landscape. At heart, sitcoms are meme delivery vehicles. As an art form, the sitcom doesn’t distinguish itself through narrative, character development, suspense or complexity; it’s repetitive, comforting and populated by archetypes. Where the sitcom excels is in repackaging the familiar, over and over again.

The best sitcoms provide us with a vocabulary for talking about our lives ― our quotidian lives, in particular. Shows like “Seinfeld” and “The Office” and “Friends” played out on tiny stages, just large enough to depict friendship quandaries, workplace hijinks and love triangles. They give us Platonic templates for our messy, specific problems: A workplace crush is so Jim and Pam, an overeager coworker is a Leslie Knope, and Ross and Rachel were on a break (maybe). They give us stock phrases, too, like “Did I do that?” and “That’s what she said” and “Yada yada yada.”

But in a time when pervasive, existential political angst has assumed the primary role in our private lives as well as our public ones, “Friends” GIFs simply won’t cut it. For the endless, despair-filled dialogues about our broken presidency and rising white supremacist violence, we need more than the anodyne yuks of a group of pals who frequent a coffee shop. We need memes about the loss of hope and innocence, and about the quandary of trying to be better people while living in a terrible world we mostly deserve. That’s exactly what “The Good Place” provides ― at least for viewers on the liberal side of the spectrum.

Given the gaping chasm between the left and right in 2018, that might be the most any TV show can accomplish. In July, Todd VanDerWerff argued that traditional, family-centered, multi-camera sitcoms like “The Carmichael Show” and “Mom” might be the salvation of our political discourse, as they incorporate political jousting into their comedy. “They all look at a deeply fractured America and see room for humor — modern-day ‘All in the Family’-style shows that see every argument between right and left as an opportunity to tweak the foibles of both,” he wrote. VanderWerff’s statement presumes that political conversation between left and right hasn’t already broken down. But it has. Sadly, conversation today takes place largely within the left and the right. Those who feel President Donald Trump is an imminent threat to the nation have little to say to those who believe he’s restoring America’s greatness.

For TV watchers in the former group, “The Good Place” has proven to be a startlingly realistic allegory for their own perception of America today. Startling, of course, because it’s on the unrealistic side for a sitcom. It’s a genre largely set in cubicle farms, living rooms, bars and diners. But “The Good Place” is set in the afterlife. The premise made it sound so hokey that I avoided it until midway through the first season. I gagged at the prospect of “The Office (Afterlife).” Instead, it’s “No Exit (The Sitcom),” a suspenseful comedy in which the stakes are enormous (eternal torment), the twists and turns thrilling, and the result always the same: They’re in the Bad Place.

What better comedy alter-ego for a world in which every new Russia investigation update and presidential tweet occasions immense sturm und drang, but deposits us exactly where we were before, with a racist imbecile as president and a sociopathic GOP platform setting the agenda?

For many left-leaning viewers ― specifically people who failed to vote or phone-bank for Hillary Clinton, people who didn’t want to ruin Thanksgiving by talking politics with their racist relatives, white people in general ― there’s also a sense of sinking culpability mirrored in “The Good Place.” We are the reason we’re here. Eleanor’s primary form of torture is her acute awareness that she doesn’t deserve eternal bliss. She was a selfish grifter, unpleasant to everyone she encountered, and openly amoral. She’s desperate to stay in the Good Place, and to try, however unevenly, to deserve it, but she knows she was the architect of her own misery.

Still, Eleanor has a rebellious sense that she doesn’t quite deserve the Bad Place, either. “I was a medium person,” she says helplessly. “I should get to spend eternity in a medium place.” The punishment, like the Trump presidency, feels disproportionate to the crime.

“The Good Place” would be notable simply for pulling off such a neat bit of timely commentary, for eerily reflecting the Trump era without directly engaging with it at all. But it doesn’t just offer commentary; it’s a primer for us to have tough, timely conversations. Its sitcom framework makes it perfectly suited to building an idiom for us to speak about politics.

Sitcoms thrive on simplicity and repetition, and in certain ways “The Good Place” subverts this expectation, with its “Lost”-inspired setting and suspenseful narrative. But it simultaneously makes the repetition overt ― each time Michael’s experiment fails and the humans figure out they’re in the Bad Place, he reboots everything and starts from the beginning (the second time, the sign reads “Welcome! Everything is great!”). In one episode, we watch Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason go through dozens of reboots, each ending the same way: “This is the Bad Place!” On a drama, we’d only get to see that revelation once; on a sitcom, we need to see it over and over again. The repetition ad absurdum transforms the horrifying into the silly, and repackages a dramatic reveal as a catchphrase.

And those catchphrases: They’re almost parodies of sitcom slogans. “The Good Place” waters them down to pitch-perfect blandness ― “This is the Bad Place”; “what the fork?”; “everything is fine.” It’s this very blandness that delivers the kick. (“This is the pit of relentless torment!” wouldn’t have quite the same resonance.) Even the most colorful swears ― “Holy motherforking shirtballs” ― come off as daffy, not caustic. The smooth-edged simplicity of much of the show’s vocabulary makes the weirdly specific memes ― like Jason’s obsession with Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, or the proliferation of frozen yogurt cafés ― all the more punchy.

The resulting memes slot seamlessly into our endless public reckoning with what America has done. “The Good Place” scripts out exactly the sort of conversation many on the left are now having daily, if not hourly: A discussion among flawed people who want to get better, and get to the Good Place, but who often differ as to how. No wonder the show’s foursome have become our Trump-era “Sex and the City” archetypes. Ethical purist Chidi, savvy Eleanor, virtue-signaling Tahini, and clueless Jason represent all of the ruling impulses in any #resistance debate.

Without hope of escape, of course, we’d all lose our minds. The show appeared in danger of skidding into a stultifying cycle of reboots, but quickly circumvented that by offering a glimmer of hope. Much of the show’s second season has revolved around an uneasy alliance between Michael, whose employees are on the verge of ratting him out to his boss if his torture experiment is figured out again, and the humans, who don’t want their memories wiped. Michael promises he can get them to the Good Place eventually ― a promise that, we learned in a recent episode, was a bald-faced lie. He can’t do it. Each avenue to paradise seems to go up in smoke. He even conjures up a hot air balloon with a moral-goodness-assessing scale that he claims will take the righteous among them to the Good Place, but he quickly must admit that it’s a hoax.

How fitting for a Trump presidency in which the consequences seem catastrophic, but the quick solutions ― impeachment, the 25th Amendment ― slip from our fingers as we grasp at them. Despair seems to stretch in every direction, because the onslaught is advancing from every horizon. The president and his allies have launched oratorical and policy attacks on immigrants, people of color, women, transgender people, the poor, journalists.  We can’t talk about it as a war on women’s reproductive rights, or the social safety net ― it’s a war on everything progressives hold dear.

We’ve lost specificity and nuance in the maelstrom of Trumpism; what’s left is a sense of good versus evil, and left versus right. We’ve also lost faith in our ability to improve things through usual channels; demanding decency from the president changes nothing, nor do falling approval ratings, and scandals that would have demolished previous leaders have made seemingly no impact. The moment calls for a similarly Manichean and Sisyphean meme ― we can’t speak in any other way. There’s a Good Place and a Bad Place. Turns out, we’re in the Bad Place, and we don’t know how to get out.

The show’s meme of realization, “This is the Bad Place,” also connotes the farce of the recycled epiphanies we have now. “Wow, Trump is a racist!” we exclaim after reading leaked comments in which he reportedly referred to majority black countries as “shitholes.” It still feels shocking to many, even though we’ve had that very epiphany before ― when he implied that most Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals, when he propelled the racist birther conspiracy theory that held Barack Obama was not born in America, when he was investigated for racial discrimination in his housing developments in the 1970s.

We had the realization, and we failed to adequately address it, so Trump is still around, more powerful than ever, and still doing racist things. Again and again, we realize we’re in the Bad Place, and again and again, the realization fails to save us. We wake up every morning and we’re still here.

And you know what? There are too many frozen yogurt parlors, on the show and in the real world. That should have been the first sign that something had gone horribly wrong.

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