Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Good Place is Everything Westworld Pretends to Be

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SPOILERS through The Good Place Season 2

The Good Place is a cheery, off-beat Michael Schur comedy with a soft sentimentality. Westworld is an edgy and twisted HBO drama that is a “consideration of human nature.” And yet it’s the comedy that manages to be one.

I should note off the bat that I’m not a fan of Westworld. From the start, I always felt that it was trying to present itself as meaningful while not actually *meaning* anything, instead relying on shocks and extreme violence to bring a grit and “maturity” that can be mistaken as such. It was hard to shake that feeling throughout the season. Stepping back to look at it as a whole, the most generous I can be is to acknowledge that there is a strong reclamation of agency from abused AIs, which I have to imagine is quite powerful to many survivors. But that doesn’t mean this was the only way to show this, it doesn’t erase the fact that the entertainment value in part derives from graphic violence (which is often gendered on the show), nor is this the entirety of what Westworld claims to be about.

It’s supposedly examining mankind.

To me, it’s an exploitative playground that yes, can raise interesting questions like, “are humans bad at their core?” or, “at what point does this become problematic?” (at the point you gave robots pain receptors, you ding-dongs). But it is exceedingly difficult to engage in that forum and get to those questions when watching is such a viscerally unpleasant experience. Plus, the show itself doesn’t entertain these debates; it’s more just the result of watching anything that features artificial intelligence or guys with British accents who whip out Oppenheimer quotes about failure.

The Good Place is the exact opposite. At worst, I think I one time had second-hand embarrassment for Eleanor when she was being [comedy] roasted. But otherwise it’s…well, exactly what you’d expect from a Kristen Bell sitcom.

Sometimes the jokes feel a little clunky, sure, though its underlying absurd elements more than make up for this. However, the true strength of this show is what it seeks to tackle: an actual exploration of human condition from within and without. That, and meta commentary on creating a sitcom of course, but mostly the exploration.

And it accomplishes this by taking the elements Westworld teases, bringing them front and center, and guiding the audience through those debates in an inclusive and perfectly TV-PG way. Take note, HBO.

Consciousness and Commentary

The central thesis of The Good Place is that humans, while fully aware of their fleeting time and impact, still push one another towards betterment. If someone is quixotically rigid, if someone is conceited, if someone is oblivious, there’s personal and systematic reasons that shaped them, and even the most selfish of all of us are never at an endpoint in our behavior. With the right conditions, we strive towards goodness, in the most basic sense of the word.

Now, for anyone who doesn’t know, this is told through four main characters who are in the afterlife. In life, every action they did had a positive or negative point value, and the grand total determined whether they were in the Good Place or the Bad Place. Our protagonists are told they’re in the Good Place, yet Eleanor (the Kristen Bell character) realizes that the powers-that-be made a mistake: the memories and actions they say belong to her and got her in there are completely unfamiliar. She confides this to her assigned soulmate Chidi, a [former] Professor of Moral Philosophy, and soon decides she wants to earn her rightful place there (and avoid detection) by having him teach her ethics.

Their particular “neighborhood” is run by Michael, the architect of the place, around whom both Eleanor and Chidi have to be particularly careful. Michael informs everyone that there’s a “glitch” in the system, which is causing some bizarre mishaps (like a worsening sinkhole). Eleanor assumes this is because she doesn’t belong, and her struggles to properly fit in affect those around her, including her new friends Tahani, and Jason (also someone with a mistaken identity).

However, at the end of season 1, there’s a *major spoiler* and big shift in what this all means. If you care about that, stop reading. Really, it’s well done, and I’m usually spoiler-philic. So take this warning to heart.

You see, the neighborhood is actually the Bad Place, and everyone in it but the main four are Bad Place employees. It was an experimental form of torture by Michael, who believed he could get humans to torture one another, instead of the tried and true torture methods like impaling. To an extent, the four did do just that, in that the anxiety created by the situation kept them unhappy. But taken as a whole, Eleanor found Chidi, tried to become a better person, and Tahani and Jason ended up getting dragged into this process, finding themselves more at peace and selfless as a result.

When Eleanor figured the truth out about their neighborhood, Michael “rebooted” everything, wiping the humans’ memories and making just a few adjustments here and there (different assigned soulmates, for instance). But it…didn’t work. Again. Eleanor realized they were in the Bad Place. And then realized it again for over 800 more tries on Michael’s part.

No matter what, Eleanor would seek out the ethical advice of Chidi, Chidi would help, they’d find out about Jason, Tahani would get involved and develop a friendship, and the four of them would see through Michael’s game.

Simply put, this “goodness of man” is one of the fundamental themes of this show. It’s not cowboys eventually choosing the brown hat and becoming chillingly detached from realistic violence. It’s a tale of communal support, love, and betterment, which is unflinching.

Now, there’s one crucial element to all this I almost forgot: Janet.

Janet is not a girl, and not a robot. She’s (loosely speaking) an AI database who functions entirely to make humans in her assigned Good Place neighborhood happier. So, yes, there’s multiple Janets since there’s multiple neighborhoods, and they possess all knowledge and can conjure all things, with very few limits.

There’s also Bad Place Janets, but they exist merely to frustrate Bad Place employees, from the looks of it.

Sometimes they scan things, I guess?

Michael, trying to really sell his “Good Place” neighborhood, stole a Good Janet to work in his.  

Why do I mention this? Westworld. Like the hosts in the amusement park who are reset and put on loops regardless of their experiences with the guests, Janet also experiences resets each time Michael reboots his neighborhood. This requires merely pressing a button, and she does not feel any pain whatsoever in the process (nor does she really care that it’s happening), as she blithely explains. However, she has a little failsafe mechanism where she will beg and plead for her life as someone approaches her button, just to ensure there can be no accidental resets.

Janet: [Begging Michael] I have tickets to “Hamilton” next week, and there’s a rumor that Daveed Diggs is coming back!

By design, Janets increase social awareness and abilities on each reboot, likely to improve upon any reasons that might have been cause for one in the first place. Also likely because no one would ever think to reboot a Janet 802 times.

I should note, after the 802nd reboot, Michael decides to team up with the four protagonists (and by default of servicing humans, Janet) since he’s in some hot bottled water at his workplace, so the cognizant restarts stop there. However, Janet has been so upgraded at this point that she’s able to have feelings about things (she hates spandex as pants), can create life (Derek!), and has retained some of her memories of past reboots (she’s still in love with Jason, which happened during attempt #1). In other words, she’s violating her core code, just as Dolores does in the pilot episode of Westworld.

However, unlike Westworld she’s completely aware of this, and curious about what it makes her and where she fits. She was never violently abused, so there’s no need for Janet to go on a homicidal rampage against the humans, or demons, or whatever the hell Maya Rudolph’s character is classified as. She’s just…Janet. Or maybe more. She hasn’t figured it all out yet, but she’s going to do her best to understand her existence, and she has the support of friends (and a boyfriend probably?) to do it.

Where The Good Place flips Westworld’s script on its head even more, however, is that the idea of slowly recognizing past experiences from resets is what’s played out by the humans. Again, it’s not centered around trauma, but these four individuals have been through over 800 iterations with each other, the longest of which lasted eleven months. Even if the average is as low as two months, we’re looking at them having spent over 130 years in this scenario.

Chidi describes it as an “epistemological nightmare,” since they are experiencing very literal karma for their deemed “bad” existences on Earth, but are unable to learn from any of their lessons with all the reboots. And indeed, while there’s a rather optimistic commentary on mankind underwriting this, their choices to be good are futile, much in the same way as hosts trapped within the Westworld amusement park are unable to break out of their prescribed roles.

However, this entirely changes the dialogue. The questions being raised have nothing to do with “at what point does this abuse of the hosts become problematic?” Mostly, because that question is directly answered when the literal demon expresses guilt for lying to Janet back when he first stole her, and then is unable to permanently deactivate her despite it being safer for everyone, despite the fact that it won’t cause her pain, and despite her begging for him to do it.

She’s chanting it in an upbeat tone, just to be clear.

Hell, even our main characters put Janet’s increasing sentience as a core ethical debate, ultimately rebooting her in an attempt to save Jason and Eleanor. We see them agonize about this decision, and Eleanor—our most “selfish” character—can’t even hit the button because of how real Janet’s failsafe pleading seems. The show makes it pretty clear: don’t mistreat robots unless there’s no other choice, and definitely don’t profit off of their misery for your own sick gains because who would come up with that concept?

Instead, the questions raised focus entirely on the philosophical states of being. Which version of ourselves is our “best” version? Well, that becomes something literal for the gang to sort out, even if it’s just in a thought experiment Michael introduced to stall. What does it mean morally for Jason to have been in love with Janet it one iteration, and then ready to marry Tahani in another? And what does it mean for Chidi and Eleanor to have been in love? Does any of that linger in the reboots?

Mindy St. Claire: You know, I’m rooting for you guys.

Eleanor: No, there is no “us guys.” We basically just met each other.

Mindy St Claire: No, Eleanor. You guys have known each other a really long time.

Well, as it turns out as of the Season 2 finale…yes. Yes it does.

It’s the humans that are retaining the memories now, and that impact is carrying over to something. If Season 3 follows through on what was set-up, that something becomes a reclamation of their “bad” lives on Earth, for something that will earn them a spot in the Good Place. So, just as Westworld is doing, we’ve got retained memories from mistreated (literally tortured, in this case) beings taking ownership of their narrative from what they were able to learn, even though they were not supposed to be able to. That’s the assumption on which the Good Place and Bad Place rest.

To be clear, what makes this more successful than Westworld’s attempt goes beyond pleasantness of viewing, though there certainly is a point to be made about creating this narrative without violence against women being presented as having an entertainment value. Instead, The Good Place outright explicates the moral dilemmas and gives us mini-philosophical lessons within each episode. Sometimes it’s a shallow reference of Kierkegaard, but sometimes it’s a live demo of the famous trolley problem. This show inherently lends itself to these questions, including the question of futility of human existence, and recognizes that fact, offering answers where it can.

Eleanor: All humans are aware of death. So we’re all a little bit sad all the time. That’s just the deal.

Michael: Sounds like a crappy deal.

Eleanor: Well, yeah. It is. But we don’t get offered any other ones.

Now that’s an examination of human nature.

The best part, at least in my opinion, is that it rejects the edgy grimdark (bordering on nihilism) of Westworld. It’s not futile, and even a demon can reform with just enough instruction from a moral philosopher. Maybe you disagree with that assessment of humanity, but it makes a damn strong case for why it’s worth trying.

Because really, this is the only deal we have. I’d rather use it consuming narratives that push for betterment, rather than asking if it’s messed up to rape a robot.

Images courtesy of NBC

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