January 27, 2021
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Celestial Bureaucracy: What “The Good Place” Owes “The Aeneid”

At the end of Abbott and Costello’s 1946 dark comedy, Time of Their Lives, Costello’s character reaches the pearly gates only to find a sign advising that Heaven has been closed for a public holiday. The sight gag would be echoed in 1988’s Beetlejuice, which envisioned the spirit world as a tortuous office building, complete with caseworkers, waiting rooms, and life-after-death handbooks. A few years later, Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life (1991) would be entirely based on the premise of an administrative afterlife, imagining that everyone must be approved by committee before moving on to the great unknown.
Welcome to the Celestial Bureaucracy, where life after death is more of a never-ending line at the DMV than a higher spiritual plane. The idea that the sweet hereafter is nothing but a continuation of life’s clerical nightmares can be found throughout history, going back to at least 19 BC, when Virgil’s Aeneid detailed Trojan hero Aeneas’s trip to the underworld, a space manned by security guards, census takers, and judges. It is a mytheme that has gained steam through the centuries, appearing in everything from Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320) to C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (1942) and media of all kinds, including pop music, cartoons, and video games.
But recently, references to a divine bureaucracy have been popping up with noticeable frequency. Imagining what happens when the infinite butts heads with data entry are television shows Good Omens (2019), based on Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s 1990 novel about what it’s like to deal with middle management of the cosmic variety, and Miracle Workers (2019), a spin on classic office comedies that envisions Heaven as a byzantine bureaucracy called Heaven Inc. Films like Coco (2017) and the upcoming Soul (2020) are also in on the joke, with Coco having likened the Land of the Dead’s gateway to a border security checkpoint.
To investigate why portrayals of a bureaucratic hereafter are pervading popular culture – and in honor of its recent series finale – let us focus on just one iteration of this classic trope: NBC’s The Good Place (2016), a series in which paperwork-loving administrators are responsible for your eternal soul. Like the Aeneid, in which the organization of divine power illuminates the machinations of humankind, The Good Place uses the hereafter as an allegory to contemplate the here and now. But what about its celestial administration is so appropriate for our time? What might it say about our collective attitude toward death, or for that matter, life?
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The gist of The Good Place’s morbid conceit is that when you die, all the points you’ve earned for doing good deeds or lost for doing bad ones are tallied into a final score. This number determines whether you end up in the “Good Place,” the “Bad Place,” or – in the unlikeliest scenario – the “Medium Place.” However, the scoring system is infamously inscrutable (only the accountants are privy to how it works) and, as it turns out, completely unfair. In season three, we learn that no one has actually made it into the Good Place in 521 years. And unfortunately, if you want to file a complaint, it will take 1,400 years just to form the committee to investigate it. Despite all these rules and regulations, it’s up to our gang of unlikely heroes – Eleanor (Kristin Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) – to save humanity from eternal doom.
That divine judgment is tied up in red tape is a delightful metaphor. Perhaps celestial organizations are just as bewildering as human ones. Maybe doing your taxes really is Hell. It is as though The Office was set in the afterlife, and if the cosmos is run anything like Dunder-Mifflin, that might explain a lot about the randomness of the universe. The Good Place gives us a lighthearted way to laugh in the face of death and, while we’re at it, poke fun at the absurd minutiae of daily life. But – like the clown paintings that decorate Eleanor’s Good Place home – the show’s playfulness is oddly disconcerting. Look just underneath it’s cheerful exterior and you’ll discover plenty of existential dread.
Like Harry Segall’s 1938 play Heaven Can Wait (and its later cinematic adaptations, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and the 1978 Warren Beatty remake of the same name), The Good Place begins with a bureaucratic slip-up. Self-centered slacker Eleanor finds herself accidentally placed in what she is told is the Good Place. Realizing the mistake, she pretends she belongs. She even starts taking classes on how to be a good person, taught by her fellow afterlife newbie Chidi, an anxiety-prone philosophy professor. But eventually, Eleanor – along with Chidi and their friends Tahani, the snobby socialite, and Jason, a dippy DJ – learns the truth: That the Good Place is actually the Bad Place. It was all just a trick, a clever bit of torture concocted by the demon Michael (Ted Danson), a monster in a human “skin suit.”
That the Good Place is not immediately recognizable as a hellscape is largely thanks to its benign suburban disguise, with its perfect weather and quaint shops selling everything from “Warm Blankets” to “Elements of Happiness.” Hollywood often portrays the afterlife as such a pristine utopia, a state that is ordered, just, and safe. When clouds, halos, and pearly gates simply won’t cut it, an idealized version of real life seems an expedient way to make the intangible tangible. While developing the look for his film Defending Your Life, which imagines the deceased arriving in the smoothly operated Judgment City, Brooks figured it should be “comfortable for people, and […] the way to make it most comfortable is to make it familiar,” perhaps with “six mini-malls just outside of town.”
Such utopian thinking attempts to optimally regulate people and things, creating a blueprint for the “good” – or even perfect – society. Introduced by Sir Thomas More in 1516, utopia is an incredibly modern concept. It presupposes the efficacy of both empiricism as an instrument of social planning and humanity’s idealism as a means to shape our collective destiny, two foundational suppositions of Western culture. From René Descartes onwards, modern society has built itself on various rationalist, functionalist, and technocratic positions that tacitly rest on aspirations of a better future, an unimpeachably arranged world within which “superior” knowledge will eradicate malice, inequity, and ineptitude.
But to fulfill these romantic ambitions, we need sensible methods of connecting means and ends. And this is how the most heavenly utopias so easily turn into bureaucratic nightmares, a tension between dreams and practicalities that has defined the modern era. As Marie Louise Berneri wrote in Journey through Utopia, published shortly after World War II: “Our age is an age of compromises, of half-measures, of the lesser evil. Visionaries are derided or despised, and ‘practical men’ rule our lives.” Taking a bureaucratic approach, life in the West has been increasingly systematized by managerial language and ordered into a detailed taxonomy of deliverables and objectives. There is a place for everything, the “Good,” “Bad,” and “Medium.” Within such hierarchal regimentation, even the most optimistic utopian designs will self-destruct in the face of methodological concerns.
Put simply, utopias are designed to fail. For starters, a utopian system presumes that fairness is attainable. But since fairness doesn’t exist, all variables within a utopian society must be controlled to ensure success, which would limit individual freedom and independent thought. How can utopia exist if freedom is limited? In the words of Georges Perec, “All utopias are depressing because they leave no room for chance, for difference, for the ‘miscellaneous.’” But what do we do with the miscellany? What do we do with those who cannot sit still? The outcasts, daredevils, megalomaniacs, and eccentrics? Which brings us to the real hitch: though seductive, utopias are incredibly boring. As John, new to the Good Place in season four, says of his afterlife digs, “Look, the neighborhood is obviously amazing, but it’s also a little season four Downton Abby—beautifully designed but a real snooze fest.” And this reveals utopia’s central paradox: that perfect happiness is ultimately unsatisfying and therefore unattainable. In the end, you must revolt. You must destroy utopia.
And so, the rebellion of our central quartet – “Team Cockroach,” as they call themselves – was inevitable. From the very first episode, when a bow-tied Michael welcomes us into his sunny office, it seemed too good to be true. You get to live here, in a utopian neighborhood designed just for you. You get a soul mate, your own personal assistant – Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the ultimate Siri – and all the frozen yogurt you would ever want to eat. That it is all a lie should be completely unsurprising. After all, the neologism coined by More in the sixteenth century was originally meant as a pun: “Utopia” was derived from the Greek words eutopos (“good place”) and outopos (“no place”), implying that the “good place” doesn’t really exist. It is instead a dangerous illusion. Utopia always becomes its dystopian opposite.
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On The Good Place, the bureaucratic task of managing the afterlife has proven catastrophic. And this is why Team Cockroach’s insurgence is not confined to the premise of the show. Theirs is a rebuke of modern bureaucracy itself, of a capitalistic society that values the bottom line more than human life. In his famous literary utopia, Looking Backward (1888), Edward Bellamy gives the reader a guided tour of the year 2000. He prognosticates that superior social planning has solved the world’s ills, from global economics to domestic strife. In reality, by the year 2000, the failures of modernity to reduce or resolve suffering had proven preposterous the belief that rational calculation would save us all. By 2020, we have seen the rise and fall of countless utopian campaigns, modern atrocities bound together by totalitarian visions to remake the world in some ideal image. Meanwhile, everything we thought we knew has been flung up in the air. The news is fake. Science is subjective. Climate change is reconfiguring the world. Technologies that were meant to bring us together have instead torn us apart, stealing our secrets in the process. What was once considered corrupt is now the ho-hum norm. Even the royals aren’t royal anymore. Utopia has collapsed, and we are left with little but confusion and disillusion.
The Good Place is a not-so-subtle reaction to these global conflagrations, reflecting distress at a world turned upside-down by the many broken promises of modernity. As Eleanor says of Team Cockroach’s various hit-and-miss attempts to save humanity, “We hope that our early successes make up for the embarrassing mess we’ve become. Like Facebook. Or America.” The show exhibits a healthy distrust of authority figures, perhaps because those we have held in the highest regard have often proved ethically challenged, be they religious leaders, presidents, or startup and social media CEOs (and, from Elizabeth Holmes to Mark Zuckerberg, they in particular get a good ribbing). The afterlife administrators on the show are themselves amoral, if not outright immoral. We see, for example, Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph) – a sardonic bureaucrat responsible for deciding Team Cockroach’s eternal fate – threaten, among other things, to exterminate the entire human race. Why do these entities get to portion out punishment while engaging in the very behaviors that are punishable?
On Miracle Workers, this skepticism extends all the way to the top. God (Steve Buscemi) is a failing CEO, overwhelmed by the fallout of his own creation. Endearingly humanized, this is a deity just trying to make it through the day. Gods, they’re just like us! Defeated, impulsive, and lazing about in our PJs. But on The Good Place, God is altogether absent. Common theological questions – does God exist? If so, why is evil allowed? – are never raised, and none of characters seem particularly bothered to ask.
That The Good Place manages to be an irreligious show about the afterlife fits an age defined by secularism. But representations of this kind of secular spirituality are not without precedent. After Hollywood was freed from the formal constraints of moral censorship in the 1960s – when the Production Code Administration was dismantled and the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency ratings faded after Vatican II – religious narratives in cinema radically changed. Pious themes began disappearing from top-grossing motion pictures, while movies about fraudulent evangelists and untrustworthy church officials like Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Sandpiper (1965) proliferated. As existentialist philosophies became more fashionable, human beings were increasingly portrayed as having to make choices in lieu of moral guidance. Buscemi’s God in Miracle Workers seems a direct successor to George Burns’s in Oh, God! (1977), a blasé almighty father who observes that whatever happens is pretty much on us. “It’s all up to you,” he says.
By the 1980s and ‘90s, Hollywood had successfully learned how to package theological content to thrill audiences. God could be whatever you wanted, and angels could have earthly desires. Like the gods who fall in love with the mortals in Virgil’s Aeneid, films like Wings of Desire (1987), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Preacher’s Wife (1996), Michael (1996), and City of Angels (1998) portrayed divine figures with very human needs. Meanwhile, hugely successful popcorn flicks like Field of Dreams (1989) and Ghost (1990) gave us faith that those we love on Earth will always be returned to us, even in death. Critics reacted with sarcasm to the abundance of self-indulgent mawkishness in the 1990s: “Forgive yourself and cue the beautiful music,” Time‘s Bruce Handy wrote of What Dreams May Come (1998). “Oh, to die in a sugar-coated Hollywood movie while the spiritual schmaltz craze is under way!” began Janet Maslin’s review of Meet Joe Black (1998).
Interestingly, such celestial concoctions often told redemptive tales of the moneyed and successful. Death was merely another surrogate for individual achievement, in which true love could conquer anguish and sin. Particularly relevant here is Defending Your Life, in which yuppie advertising exec Daniel (Albert Brooks) dies in a car accident in his newly purchased BMW. Upon arriving in the afterlife, he learns that – in order to advance to the next level of the cosmos – he will need to plead his case to a formidable tribunal. But rather than be judged on matters of sin, the evaluative criterion is based on whether the deceased made the most of their lives. He is able to move on after falling in love with Julia (Meryl Streep), whom he met in the hereafter.
That Hollywood had transformed the formerly sacred into syrupy confections available in malls everywhere suited the time. As modern life became less religious, spiritual and communal voids grew, and various interested entities were waiting in the wings to fill them. Matters of divinity had been outsourced to corporate interests, a transaction devoid of higher ideals and defined by a kind of materialistic spiritualism. Billionaires merited worship, Oprah advocated nirvana via the perfect pashmina, and the self-help industry became hell bent on promoting personal empowerment by way of capitalism. Airport bookstalls across the globe continue to carry messages from Dale Carnegie to Cheryl Sandberg that proclaim there is a way to “hack” modern life without actually having to challenge any of the systemic conditions that make it difficult for the majority to simply pay the bills.
The Good Place departs from the saccharine afterlife narratives of the 1990s by dispelling of these more capitalistic ideas of salvation. Where Defending Your Life privileges living your “best” life, The Good Place dives deep into what it takes to live virtuously, the characters going above and beyond to put self-interest aside for the sake of others. It is a contrast most evident in the fourth and final season, which sees Team Cockroach mentoring a new gang of misfits marked for the Bad Place. There is John, the gossip, Simone, the skeptic, and Linda, the bore. But it is the entitled Princeton alum Brent – did he mention he went to Princeton? – who most blatantly represents the “I got mine, you get yours” mentality the show lambasts, with his misplaced confidence born from privilege: “I am Brent Norwalk […] I’m in the Good Place, ya ever heard of it? And I’m here because I deserve to be here. I’m here because I earned it by being the best.” Team Cockroach must put aside their personal disdain for this new cast of characters in order to help them—not for the promise of a reward but for the collective good.
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Team Cockroach has done the hard thing: challenged the status quo. The gang worked to dismantle a rigged points system – which didn’t take into account anyone’s extenuating circumstances – in order to give everyone a fair shot. “People improve when they get external love and support,” says Michael, after his own personal awakening led him to join forces with our central four. “How can we hold it against them, when they don’t?” The realization throughout the series that people need each other to heal and grow speaks to a basic human drive, once seen as necessary for survival but less so in an alienating culture that privileges self-satisfaction above all. By rebelling against the afterlife points system, The Good Place dispels of contemporary ideations of eternal salvation granted by systems and metrics, and in a way, modernity’s more narcissistic tendencies altogether.
It is an idea of the afterlife that makes space for forgiveness. Most iterations of life after death imply an eternal stasis in which nothing and no one ever changes. But one of the most surprising things The Good Place does is ask its audience to commit to watching irksome characters self-improve. Though the show has some old-school sitcom cred – this is a comedy about an eccentric group of friends, after all – it is no Seinfeld. Situation comedies have not historically welcomed character change. But The Good Place does not take the easy way out. Instead, it depicts personal growth as a difficult, ceaseless process that requires genuine effort. Unlike its ‘90s predecessors, moments of self-acceptance are fleeting. “You’re allowed to feel a little angry,” Michael tells Eleanor after she expresses disappointment in herself for engaging in bad behavior. “Process it and work your way through it, then get your shirt together. ‘Cause we have a lot of work to do.” The work he refers to is arduous and replete with failure. There are no magical answers. The gang must get up and try, try again. In fact, repetition is a major theme of the show, as though the kind of routine labor required in any bureaucratic state becomes a holding pattern for enlightenment. Like Russian Doll (2019) and Groundhog Day (1993) before it, the characters are trapped in a limbo of second chances, opportunities to right their wrongs.
It is a tad bleak if not positively nihilistic, the thought that what comes next is just…more life? More work? But the truth is, we welcome the challenge. There is no quicker way to atrophy the human heart than to deprive it of struggle. As Michael, concerned about his job security as an afterlife architect, explains, “Pushing the rock up the hill gave me a purpose. Who am I, if the rock’s gone?” Like Team Cockroach, we will try and try again. Even if – as is realized toward the season’s end – we do arrive at a state of eternal fulfillment, we will become disenchanted. Pain and pleasure are a matching set. As Socrates explains in Plato’s Phaedo: “They will never come to a man both at once, but if you pursue one of them and catch it, you are nearly always compelled to have the other as well.”
These two halves – achievement and setback, idealism and letdown – consistently converge on The Good Place. It seems appropriate for an age in which struggles for progress often appear so futile. And it is perhaps why bureaucratic utopias are so presently resonant. When confronting disorder and anomaly, it is reasonable we’d want to put everything in order again. From More’s original Utopia, through William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1892), to Margaret Atwood’s The Testament (2019), we have imagined alternative world orders as a means to shed light on present crises. What a useful way to work through the angst of an era in flux.
But while utopian visions are often used to process cultural upheaval, utopias themselves preclude adaptation. And this is precisely why they always disappoint. Since life exists as a complex set of oscillators bent toward uncertainty, no one can unfailingly predict the future of any social system. The Good Place suggests that even our most idealistic dreams need to be aware that problems requiring new remedies will always arise. “There is no problem we can’t solve,” says Michael. “There is no problem we can’t create,” says the demon Shawn. Perfection is not synonymous with immutability. Counter intuitively, the only way we can work toward stability is to reject equilibrium in favor of evolution. What humans really want – what we truly long for – is an ideal world where we still have to try. Epiphanies and effort, bliss and strife all wrapped into one. As it is on Earth, so we hope it is in Heaven.
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