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The Lies We Tell: Deception in The Good Place} ?>
Warning: Spoilers This Way Lie
In the first season of NBC’s The Good Place, deception is not only part of the storytelling and catalyst for humour, but an important thematic element. Anyone who’s watched even a few sitcoms knows how often they use lying and deception as a plot device to get the most laughs. Whether it’s George Constanza tricking his employers into thinking he’s at work by leaving his car in the parking lot or Chandler and Monica keeping their relationship secret from their friends, lies provide significant ground to explore comedic possibilities in these shows. But at a time when politicians and media pundits continue to normalize “alternate facts,” The Good Place explores the moral consequences of lying and the power of telling the truth.
In the pilot episode, Eleanor Shellstrop discovers that she has died and has been admitted to “the good place,” an idyllic, heaven-like neighbourhood where only the best and altruistic souls go. Eleanor soon realizes that she’s not supposed to be there. She’s been somehow confused with another, much better woman who’s also named Eleanor Shellstrop. When Eleanor discovers that her presence is having disastrous consequences for the good place and its inhabitants, she decides that she has to do whatever it takes to stay—including lying and shifting blame to others. In flashbacks to her life on earth, we see how self-centered and self-involved Eleanor was—every decision she made was about her own personal comfort and interest.
As part of her plan, Eleanor also embarks on a course of study on ethics taught by Chidi, a tightly-wound professor of moral philosophy who is still haunted by the memory of a telling a white lie about liking the audaciously red cowboy boots of a colleague. In helping Eleanor, Chidi chooses to ally with Eleanor in her deception at great personal discomfort; she does so for the greater purpose of helping her become a better person. And, although Eleanor’s reason for studying moral philosophy is initially self-serving—she thinks that an understanding of ethics will make her presence less problematic—she comes to understand the consequences of her deceptions, which leads to her unexpected confession in front of the entire neighbourhood and ultimately, at the season’s end, her choice to abandon the good place because staying means harming others.
What I like most about The Good Place’s treatment of deception is the noticeable shift in narrative when Eleanor publicly confesses that she’s not supposed to be there. The very idea of what the show is about unravels to the end-of-season twist (one of the best plot twists in years): these characters have actually been in the bad place all along! The deceptions, the lies, and the intrigue have been part of a malevolent plan to torture four people. In becoming educated about morals and ethics, Eleanor realizes that she can’t keep lying. Her confession, the architect of this subtle hell tells us, was an unforeseen event, which ruined what should have been a thousand years’ worth of torment.
We can find any number of justifications for lying: self-protection, self-aggrandizing, protecting someone else’s feelings, and more. In our current age, repeating well-worn lies has become business-as-usual for many, including politicians and businesses. For individuals, lying can make us feel powerful and help us avoid punishment, but lying can also create a subtle hell, which we see in The Good Place in the glimpses we get of Eleanor’s life. Her self-absorption resulted in a lonely, isolated life; no friends, no family. Although she doesn’t know she’s in “the bad place” until the end of the first season, her redemptive honesty and genuine care for her friends turns the bad place into a good place.
And the good place doesn’t necessarily mean an easy place. Telling the truth is costly. It makes us vulnerable and puts us at risk of harm. But it is only through honesty that we can ever really connect with and care for others… at least that’s what I read in Ethics for Dummies.
Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.
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