• Panah Kirana

The Good Place, Existentialism, and Huis Clos

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The Good Place is NBC’s newest hit comedy. Its bold and ecstatic poster may fool many, but the cult series actually has a pretty dark plot despite its vibrant color tone.

Created by Michael Schur, The Good Place led us as the audience to believe that the small and heavenly community we saw on the first episode was “heaven”. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) was also led to believe that she was indeed in “the good place” despite having lived all her life seeking pleasure (to what Epicurus called hedonism) without caring what and who she was hurting along the way. As someone who lived unethically on earth, she was taken into The Good Place where only a fraction of the population of earth can actually get into. She thought she had gotten away with making it into heaven because the ancient, delightful, supernatural being Michael (Ted Danson) and his “not a robot” assistant Janet (D’arcy Carden) mistook her as another Eleanor Shelstrops, a selfless and saintly lawyer who helped many death row inmates due to clerical error.  What she didn’t directly know was that she was right where she belonged.

The “Good Place”—after the shocking revelation—is actually “The Bad Place”. This neighborhood was where she met Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), an indecisive ethics professor, Tahani al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), a narcissistic philanthropist, and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), an idiotic failed DJ from Florida who was mistaken as a silent Buddhist monk. This revelation is a comedic reinterpretation of Jean Paul Sartre’s existential play, No Exit or Huis Clos.

No Exit is a play by notorious existentialist Jean Paul Sartre (1944). The play features three main characters: Garcin, Inez, and Estelle. The story of the play is on the three characters being thrown into hell after their deaths, but not the kind you’d guess it to be like. Contrary to popular belief, hell, according to Sartre, is a place without flaming pitchforks or demons around. Instead, hell is people condemned to spend eternity in a featureless room together. This captivating play tells us how the trio can’t even sleep and escape into dreams anymore for their eyelids apparently disappeared. Through the idea of torture being beyond physical and psychological in hell, the characters were actually designed to torture one another. As a result of this eternal eye opening (literally) experience, they tried to cope by tearing each other limb by limb. Over time, they drove each other insane by calling out each other’s anxiety, insecurities, and enacted fear.


This excruciating premise of Huis Clos is what Mike Schur used to build The Good Place from the ground up. The concept of eternal damnation is now psychological torture people put each other through—hell is not a place or fire, hell is other people.

The characters in The Good Place even resemble the ones in the play. The Good Place’s Chidi, the constant dilemma factory, is a wink at Garcin, the cowardly and self-declared hero. Eleanor, the opinionated egotistical women, is a wink at Inez—aside the fact that both women realized they were inherently bad to the bone, they also realized the power of opinions upon them. Meanwhile, Tahani, the self-obsessed dubuntate of our time is a notch toward Estelle, the snobbish socialite in Sartre’s play.

In addition to the resemblances between the trio being uncanny, there are several parallels from No Exit to The Good Place that go beyond their basic premises and character compositions, including its love triangle. The diagram of the love triangle in No Exit is as follows: Garcin wanted Estelle yet was dreaded by Inez’s wrath and judgement; Inez yearned for Estelle who wanted nothing to do with her and resented Garcin for that; Estelle wanted Garcin but can never escape Inez’s affectionate serenade toward her that costed her the relationship she desired to have with Garcin.

The aforementioned situation may not exactly align with the love triangle in The Good Place, but there are some similarities between the two. Chidi’s indecisiveness caused him to be stuck in an eternal dilemma between Eleanor and Tahani. He was in an eternal trolley problem of dilemma, and for Chidi, being trapped in a dilemma was the greatest torture of all. He was what Soren Kierkegaard would call the example of “the concept of anxiety”, but we’ll get to that some other time.

While Eleanor was not a lesbian per se (but rather a bisexual), she confessed her love for Chidi yet still managed to say “I might be legit into Tahani”. She loved Chidi and liked Tahani, and that was the difference between her and Inez—she didn’t initiate fear toward Chidi like Inez did to Garcin, but was rather hoping that Chidi would love her back. The last person is Tahani or The Good Place’s version of Estelle—both depicted as good looking characters—who declared her love for Chidi and that they were both meant for each other. This of course, was quickly dismissed by Tahani herself at the end of the episode (Season 1 Episode 10) who admitted that the “confession” came only because she was drowning and Chidi was the nearest lifeboat. She momentarily resented Eleanor because the two of them wanted Chidi and Eleanor was attracted to her—just like how Estelle lusted for Garcin and hated Inez for having feelings for her. It didn’t stop there—both women also share the refusal to believe that they were sent to hell or “The Bad Place”. Estelle’s resistance might’ve been harder, but that didn’t mean Tahani didn’t have her fair share of complaints.

On the other hand, the difference between the TV series and Satre’s play can be summed up like this: first, there are no Jason, Michael, and Janet-like characters in No Exit. Second, Garcin, Inez and Estelle knew they were in hell before they walked into the room whilst in The Good Place, they were being manipulated into thinking that they were in “The Good Place”. Last but not least, while both universes from The Good Place and no Exit were designed for the characters to torture one another, the very concept of hell is other people from No Exit did not work in The Good Place’s universe. Indeed, the characters in The Good Place didn’t know each other, were given back stories to drive each other mad, and designed to cross paths to torture each other—nevertheless, they still managed to have a good sense of kinship.

What sets apart The Good Place and No Exit is that hell is not other people for Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Michael, and Janet—contrarily, the characters could be each other’s means to escape the actual hell. Despite all the flaws and how mad they drove each other, they would still find their way together, even after hundreds of memory-rebooted experience. No matter how far they were or how genius the design was for them to torture each other, all four core would still be friends and find out that they are in “The Bad Place”. What makes The Good Place exciting is how the main characters were flawed yet capable of growing into individuals that we can be proud of because they remained together, even after their memories were wiped clean. Without just one of them, they were incomplete. It was the tale of friendship and how this bond could overcome literal hell and make it bearable that made The Good Place, to say the least, an optimistic take on No Exit.

Amongst all their similarities and despite their differences, the most important thing that both The Good Place and No Exit wants to teach us is that everybody has their own fair share of agony. Sure, our nemesis might not seem like s/he is tormented on the outside, but they suffer in their own ways. In other words: what doesn’t kill you might kill somebody else, because even if a pitchfork can’t kill us, it might be as sharp as sword to others.

The matter of torture is subjective—what might’ve been a torture to one person might not be the same idea of torture to another person. Take Eleanor and Chidi for example, Eleanor was mad at Chidi about how he cannot decide and told him that lying and choosing were both easy to do. She didn’t understand how choosing tortured Chidi, but we as the audience get a pretty profound picture of how much time he could waste just to settle for a hat. The basis of their friendship is that they finally understood how much they suffer and how much easier it would be if they suffered together instead of ripping each other apart, unlike what was done by Satre’s characters. The series’ characters stood tall in the face of everlasting adversity, arms link in one another’s.

At the end of the day, we cannot only count on ourselves. We should not take another human as wolves to us (homo homini lupus — Hobbes) but rather as allies and companions (homo homini socius — Adam Smith). This example was set by our favorite flawed yet ever-growing characters in The Good Place.

The Good Place is more than just a show about philosophy jokes and name dropping world-famous philosophers like Socrates or Immanuel Kant—there’s a lot more than what meets the eye and though they might not say it explicitly through their resident ethics professor, Chidi, we know that they neatly slipped it right under our noses. Huis Clos is just a fraction of the morality this philosophically based TV show used; there remains many that we need to unravel. What the writers are mainly trying to teach is whether or not we can learn being good through ethics. Their method of using an actual theory on lives of these unethical humans/eternal creature/not a robot is called meta-ethics, which can be a mirror for us to see our lives via broadcast television. All in all, The Good Place is a terrific way to cope with the frightening fact of the absurdism of life (Albert Camu) through an enduring sense of friendship and constant application of ethics in daily lives.


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