Led by the likes of A. S. Colborne and Roland Sawyer, millions of Americans have joined anti-profanity movements and sworn to eradicate swearing. Despite their fervor and persistence, nothing much has changed over the last century or so. Well, except that there’s more swearing. Perhaps only divine intervention can rid the world of bad language. That’s more or less what the newish, unusual NBC sitcom The Good Place proposes.
The Good Place premiered on NBC on 19 September 2016 and ran for thirteen episodes. It’s been renewed for a second thirteen-episode season to begin 28 September 2017. Its creator and show-runner, Michael Schur, has a sense of humor devilish or divine, depending on how you look at it. Here’s the premise: just a few remarkably good and productive people make it to the Good Place and everyone else — statistically, everybody — goes to the Bad Place.
Actually, both Places consist of neighborhoods designed by Architects. Michael (played by Ted Danson) is Architect of the Good Place in which Eleanor Shellstropp (played by Kristen Bell) lands after a truck full of erectile dysfunction medicine rams into her while she attempts to pick up a bottle of margarita mix she’s dropped in the supermarket parking lot. Yes, that’s a hint: Eleanor doesn’t remotely belong in the Good Place. Mayhem ensues.
Supposedly heroic dead people surround Eleanor. Tahani (played by Jameela Jamil) was a philanthropist and socialite. Tahani’s alleged soulmate, Jianyu (played by Manny Jacinto) — also an interloper, we discover — was a Buddhist monk. Eleanor’s soulmate, Chidi (played by William Jackson Harper) — to whom she admits her presence in the Good Place is a cosmic mistake — was a professor of ethics.
Everything in the Good Place tends towards harmony and happiness. There’s all you can eat frozen yogurt! As different as they are, the Good People of the Good Place all understand one another. Language is under control. When Eleanor learns that Chidi is Nigerian but raised in Senegal, she exclaims, “Your English is amazing!” Chidi explains, “Oh, I’m actually speaking French. This place just translates whatever you say into a language the other person can understand.” Universal translation is obviously a Good Thing.
One sign that Eleanor is misplaced is that she swears frequently. Actually, she attempts to swear but quickly discovers that euphemism is as universal as translation — the Good Place autocorrects her swearing. “Somebody royally forked up. Somebody forked up. Why can’t I say fork?” Chidi once again brings her up to speed: “If you’re trying to curse, you can’t here.” Eleanor responds on behalf of all of us who wouldn’t make it to the Good Place: “Bullshirt!”
Here’s a digest of euphemisms the Good Place compels from Eleanor. Turns out the f-word is as versatile in the Good Place as it is in any place:
What the fork?
Aw, fork me.
Yeah, but I forkin’ nailed it.
Oh, they look a bit burnt. But they’re not. Fork, that’s good.
You sent me those threatening notes? What the fork, man?
Michael said anybody who did anything bad might have to go [thumb pointing downwards], which means Jianyu’s gone, you might be gone, and all three of us are forking forked.
You’ve got to be forking kidding me.
And, oh fork, I’m in love with Chidi.
You and I have a weird, complicated, forked up friendship.
Just me being here threw Chidi into an ethical clusterfork.
Other profanity, less frequent, is no less euphemized:
You didn’t get into heaven at all, shirt for brains.
Sometimes, items collaborate: “Holy motherforking shirtballs.” For someone like Eleanor, someone who really wants to swear, the situation is frustrating: “Things only started to get crazy after I was an ash-hole at the party. You know I’m trying to say ash-hole and not ash-hole, right?”
Under Chidi’s influence, Eleanor tries to be a better person, but she has a mean streak. Profanity would prove it, if only she could get it to work: “Tahani — what a condescending bench, am I right?” she says, or “I’m going to prove to you and to everyone that she is secretly a two-faced, calculating, phony bench.” So much for Kant.
Eleanor questions the after-life system of meritocratic elitism into which she’s been thrust by fate or providence, or whatever it is: “I just want to say once more, for the record, that this whole good/bad system is bullshirt.” Later she asks, “Why haven’t you forkers invented a Middle Place?” It’s a fair question, but euphemism undermines Eleanor’s moral seriousness.
That said, everyone should know that Eleanor doesn’t belong in the Good Place. She can’t swear, but — euphemisms be damned — surely, they hear her sweary intentions. Or, maybe not. “If you’re trying to curse …” Chidi begins. Can’t he tell? Maybe universal translation translates the hell out of those euphemisms.
The jokes are obvious, but no less amusing for that. The message seems clear. Profanity is bad. Euphemism makes for a better world and an honorable afterlife. We should all stop swearing and thank the Good Place for euphemism. But The Good Place’s genre and its approach to swearing send the opposite message. We’ll eradicate profanity when Hell freezes over — it’s absurd, a fantasy.
On the margins, the Good Place’s swearing rules are inconsistent. As she takes more than her fair share of shrimp at a cocktail party, Eleanor notes to a chiding Chidi, “It’s freakin’ heaven. I’m sure they have plenty of shellfish. That Tahani is a real butthead, huh? Hey, at least I can still say butthead.” The anatomical difference between asshole and butthead is clear. Arguments for the supposed moral superiority of butthead over asshole, not so much.
Eventually, the Good People of the Good Place realize that Eleanor is an imposter. They prepare to send her to the Bad Place. Folks from the Bad Place come to fetch her. Straight off the train, those people can say bitch. Later, though, their speech is cosmically controlled, too. They’re hard partiers, and one “demon” — for lack of a better word — asks Tahani, “Want a bump?” Tahani responds as someone who ended up in the Good Place should: “No, thank you, I — I don’t use cocaine.” That’s when Demon #2 intervenes: “Oh, it’s not cocaine, idiot. We’re snorting Time.” Tahani: “Sorry, you’re snorting the concept of Time?” Demon #1: “Yeah, it’ll fork you up.” Forking-A. The forkers from the Bad Place lose their forking linguistic agency in the Good Place.
In the final episode, Eleanor figures it all out. She and her neighbors aren’t in the Good Place. They’re in the Bad Place. Living with their disappointment in one another is their eternal punishment. It’s an homage to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis-Clos (No Exit). Michael is a Bad Place Architect. It’s all been a cruel ruse.
But, wait! That confuses the ethical and metaphysical basis of the show, doesn’t it? Was auto-correction meant to convince Eleanor that, denied her baser impulses, she must be in the Good Place? Michael the Architect once tells all of them to “get the fork out of” his office. But can an Architect square a circle or violate logical rules or natural laws? Auto-euphemism would seem to fall in that last category. Maybe, Michael can’t swear in the world he made any more than anyone else. Or, is Michael free to swear but pretending for the sake of the ruse?
Is denying Eleanor the pleasure of swearing — constantly frustrating that pleasure — part of her punishment? Or, if auto-correction is a bona fide feature of the Bad Place, does that imply that profanity is good, or, at least, that the Good Place doesn’t interfere with swearing? If we went to the Good Place, would the Good People there swear with abandon? Let’s hope so. And let’s hope that Season 2 of The Good Place explains these sweary conundrums as pleasantly as Season 1 posed them.