A late September headline at the Esquire magazine website proclaimed “There Is No God on TV, Only The Good Place.”
Indeed, the clever sitcom of that title, which launched season No. 3 last week, plays around with good and evil, heaven and hell, and even portrays supernatural demons. But God is missing.
This NBC fantasy is just the thing to lure the eyeballs of America’s growing legion of young, religiously unmoored “nones,” in a carefully multicultural fashion that also ignores religious beliefs and practices. Instead, the proceedings are all about a hazy moral philosophy about what makes a good person.
CBS makes a different audience bid with “God Friended Me,” which premiered Sunday. The drama’s lead character Miles (played by Brandon Micheal Hall) is a preacher’s kid turned outspoken atheist. Is the “God” who becomes his Facebook “friend” the actual cosmic God or some human or otherworldly trickster? To find out, Miles enlists his devout bartender sister, a hacker pal, and a journalist, and experiences coincidences that just might be miracles.
Judging from one episode, there may not be much here for religion writers to ponder, and it's hard to guess whether “Friended” can even survive. (Ratings prospects are dimmed by CBS’s inability to set predictable Sunday start times following sports events.) This seems inspiration-drenched programming in the varied tradition of “Highway to Heaven,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Promised Land,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” or last season’s short-lived “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.”
“The Good Place,” by contrast, has somehow managed to establish a niche and win critics’ acclaim by probing Big Questions with a droll touch. Here salvation is earned strictly by performing good deeds instead of faith. That conflicts with an historic 1999 Catholic-Lutheran accord that insists Christianity believes that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God” who equips and calls us to “good works.”
The Guy has seen surprisingly little religious buzz about “Place,” leaving plenty of unexplored terrain for an enterprising journalist.
How would articulate theologians and moral philosophers critique the substance and the impact on millions of viewers? What do ordinary churchgoers say? Creator Michael Schur and scriptwriters should be debriefed about their religious outlooks and motives.
Hey, scribes, you might even get a book out of this. Recall the Presbyterian Church (USA) publishing house’s “The Gospel According to Peanuts,” followed by “according to” books about “The Simpsons,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” Disney and science fiction.
Here’s one religious assessment, from www.pluggedin.com, which reviews TV and movies from a traditional Christian perspective. It thinks the scriptwriting is “crisp,” the acting “sharp,” the setup “sweetly provocative” and the “goofy” chatter about morality “refreshing.” But it says some problematic aspects leave family audiences wishing the show was “a whole lot better.”
For non-viewers, here’s an upsum of the first two seasons. Four deceased humans enter “the Good Place,” a paradise offering e.g. perpetual sunshine, infinite frozen yogurt, and cleaned-up conversation full of “fork” and “shirt.” They’re aided by Janet, a cheerful robot in human form who enjoys access to all the knowledge in the universe.
Eleanor (Kristen Bell) is a total ditz but knows she doesn’t deserve heaven and is the first to figure out the four humans are actually trapped in an experimental “Bad Place” (i.e. a hell) designed by their host, the demon Michael (sitcom stalwart Ted Danson). In season two, the four try to escape, eventually aided by Michael who starts turning “good.”
Michael thus deceives his boss, who may not be Satan himself but only middle management, just as the underemployed Judge who allows their escape is not the familiar capital-G God. In season three, the humans miraculously return to earth, escape their past deaths, and strive to be better persons in order to qualify for the real “Good Place.”
The TV hell masquerading as heaven is not a realm of physical torment or hellfire but of nagging and all-too-irritating humans (the ne’er-do-well Eleanor, a pedantic philosophy professor who cannot decide anything, a self-absorbed socialite and an airheaded petty crook).
“Hell is other people.” Thank you Jean-Paul Sartre. The scripts are full of jests about other thinkers from Aristotle onward. To The Guy, it’s all highly unusual fare for network prime time, surprisingly entertaining, and poses healthy questions for a post-2016 America rife with narcissism and moral confusion.