You wouldn’t expect to find a whole lot of bridge-building in Hell.
In NBC’s hit afterlife comedy-drama The Good Place, the demon Michael (played by Ted Danson) has a vision: If he can trick humans into believing they’ve gone to Heaven but then pair them up for differences instead of compatibility, the humans will torture each other for all eternity. That way, demons like him can take it easy.
At first, Michael’s experiment goes perfectly. In the first season of The Good Place, Hell is being thrown together with people who don’t understand you. Hell is isolation, the absence of empathy, the inability to build bridges. That sounds grim, but the show expertly milks the situation for laughs.
Eleanor, a self-described white “trashbag from Arizona,” finds little in common with her alleged soulmate, Chidi Adagonye, an African philosophy professor who obsessively mulls over every decision he makes. Jason Mendoza, a Filipino-American slacker from Jacksonville, finds himself pretending to be a monk who has taken a vow of silence. He’s paired with Tahani, a Pakistani-British socialite who can’t penetrate Jason’s blank stare, but nonetheless feels the need to pretend she’s happy with him, because that’s what’s expected of her.
It’s significant that these four central characters are of different races and cultures. They come from different social classes and education levels. Their temperaments are radically different. While “odd couples” are the stuff of classic comedy—think Abbott and Costello, Harold and Maude, Harry and Sally, Woody and Buzz—The Good Place doesn’t stop with laughing at the collision of opposites.
Over time, the four humans learn that their dissimilarities don’t need to divide them. In fact, in the first season, their differences make them better people, as each person’s strengths help soften the other person’s weaknesses. Eventually, they bridge an even bigger difference between human and demon, bringing Michael over to their side.
What can we learn from The Good Place? As the series launches into its fourth season, here are four lessons from Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto)—not to mention Michael—about how to build bridges between people (and with immortal beings) who are very different from each other.
1. Learning what others have to teach you
We can always learn something from people—even when those people are pretty terrible.
Take Eleanor, for instance. There’s no mystery about why she’s gone to Hell—and she’s too smart to buy the story that she’s supposed to be in Heaven. After she comes clean with Chidi about being in the wrong place, he discovers how awful she was in life.
“So, your job was to defraud the elderly—sorry, the sick and elderly?” Chidi asks her about a telemarketing job she held.
“But I was very good at it, I was the top salesperson five years running!” Eleanor protests.
“But that’s worse. You do see how that’s worse, don’t you?” Chidi laments.
It takes longer for us (and everyone in the show) to understand why Chidi is in Hell. The answer is that he was so anxious in life that he made everyone around him unhappy. In this sense, he’s the opposite of the resilient, cunning Eleanor—and naturally, at first, he simply judges her. “You are too selfish to be a good person,” Chidi tells Eleanor in the first season.
Yet as time goes along, Eleanor and Chidi end up learning from their differences. He helps Eleanor to find a conscience and a purpose in the afterlife, and Chidi learns from her that he doesn’t need to obsess over the morality of every choice he makes—it’s okay to loosen up a little, especially if it makes someone else happy. Despite coming from very different social and philosophical backgrounds, the two became friends, then lovers. Michael’s plan to jam them together as fake soulmates is foiled as they become real soulmates.
For Eleanor and Chidi, soulmate is an accomplishment—and they’re a lesson for the rest of us in what opposites can teach each other.
2. Contact between groups
In the 1940s, social psychologist Gordon Allport theorized that increased contact between different groups of people—under certain conditions such as the support of legitimate authorities and common goals—could help break down barriers and decrease prejudice. Intergroup contact has done everything from help the Irish integrate to America to increase widespread acceptance of gay rights.
And in The Good Place, coming into contact with each other helps the humans discover what they have in common. Ultimately, they come to respect their very real differences, as they see different strengths come into play when they’re forced to solve problems together. Before long, the four become best of friends, and are able to turn the tables on Michael, foiling his plot to trick them into thinking they actually were in the Good Place not once but countless times.
The interactions between humans are really just a prelude, though, to the big story: how contact with the humans changes eternal beings like Michael and the cosmic super-computer Janet (D’Arcy Carden). In the normal Bad Place, demons physically torture humans for eternity; as Michael says, they only take human form so that they can better understand how to inflict pain.
But Michael’s experiment with the Bad-Place-disguised-as-Good is fundamentally different from normal Hell because he needs to understand human psychology and have many complex, reciprocal interactions with them over a long period of time.
This has an unexpected impact. Over the course of hundreds of years, Michael’s contact with the four friends brings him to feel compassion and even admiration for them. “This is not fair,” Michael tells his demon boss about his new human friends and their sentence in Hell. “Those humans are good people.”
Of course, the differences don’t disappear. “Human beings, it turns out, are weird,” Michael tells Eleanor in the new season. “And I will never truly understand what it’s like to be one.” Contact helps Michael to see the differences—and he comes to respect instead of scorn them.
3. Shared Identity
As the demon Michael surely knew when he picked the four individuals to torture at the start of the show, we humans often clash with each other when our subordinate identities differ. What does that mean? A subordinate identity is the narrower grouping we place ourselves in when we think about who we are and who is in our in-group.
For instance, if you live in the United States, you may consider yourself a Floridan or Georgian first, particularly during football season. Tahani, Eleanor, Jason, and Chidi all start out boxing themselves into their narrow subordinate identities, such as being a Pakistani-British socialite or a working-class Arizonan. All the characters compulsively say things to socially position themselves and separate from the others, as when Tahani can’t stop name-dropping celebrity friends. “It’s not about who you know,” she says at one point. “Enlightenment comes from within. The Dalai Lama texted me that.”
Research shows that viewing ourselves primarily through the lens of subordinate identities can reduce our willingness to help out-groups. For instance, one study of British soccer fans discovered that they were much less likely to help an injured jogger if they happened to be wearing a jersey belonging to the rival team. But the researchers found that re-framing the situation through the lens of a shared identity helped increase prosocial behavior. When they identified the injured jogger as a soccer fan instead of a partisan for one team or another, participants were more likely to help the jogger. This outcome was achieved because the participants were able to focus on the superordinate, or shared, identity of soccer fan over the subordinate identity of whatever team the individuals favored. The study’s participants essentially widened their in-group to include a larger group of people, increasing the likelihood of prosocial behavior.
Over time, the four friends of The Good Place work for the same goal—which is, literally, to escape Hell—and in the process come to see each other as human above all else. Instead of allowing their differences to necessarily divide them, the protagonists of the show unite and stand together against the system that has control over their fates.
“You thought we would torture each other,” a defiant Eleanor tells Michael at the end of season one. “But we also took care of each other. We improved each other. And the four of us became a team. And so, the only thing you succeeded in doing was bringing us all together.”
4. Taking perspective
So, does the development of a superordinate identity among humans depend on pitting themselves against an out-group—which is, in the case of The Good Place, the demons who want to torture them? No, because they’re able to expand their in-group to include even the non-humans Michael and Janet.
Michael’s story arc points to one of the fundamental necessities of bridge-building: perspective taking. This is essentially the ability to put yourself in the shoes of other people, trying to see the world through their eyes. Studies suggest that taking the perspective of individuals from a different group can change how you think of the group as a whole, as Michael does with the four friends. But the cold empathy he feels in a human body, that helps him to torture humans, isn’t enough—Michael has to grow enough for their feelings to matter to him, too. In The Good Place, his sense of their feelings needs to affect his moral choices.
In the first season of the show, Michael offers his own blunt point of view about why he wanted to set up the faux paradise for the four unsuspecting humans. He’s simply bored with the same old torture techniques. “Look, we can just send them all to the hot spike pits with the lava, and the bees and the lightning that tears off their flesh,” he tells his demon colleagues. “Let’s try something new!”
His personal perspective on the humans is simple: They are playthings for him to torture, at best. “I’m basically an exterminator, and you’re cockroaches,” he tells the humans in season two, providing an even darker explanation of his perspective.
But as he slowly realizes that his plan to get the humans to torture each other isn’t working, he ends up teaming up with the humans first out of self-interest—he wants to escape the consequences of his failed experiment—but he eventually learns to see the bigger picture, which includes a human point of view.
Chidi facilitates this transformation by coaching Michael with lessons on morality and life, much as he did the other humans. Michael’s first dose of perspective taking comes after his realization that his own life may come to an end if his boss finds out that he is working with the humans.
“Imagine being retired, everyone else is here, but you—poof, gone, nothingness, empty, black void,” Chidi instructs him.
For the first time, Michael is able to put himself in the shoes of human beings who have to think about their own mortality. This gives him something he hasn’t felt before in the show: vulnerability. He collapses into the fetal position, a look of shock on his face.
“I was just trying to prove that humans could torture each other. Instead, they helped each other, and got better. ”
“This is good! He’s having an existential crisis, it’s a sort of anguish people go through when they contemplate the silent indifference of an empty universe,” Chidi excitedly tells Eleanor. “If he can work through this, it’s the first step towards understanding human ethics!”
Michael goes on to understand not just human ethics, but humanity. The “cockroaches” become his friends, and his behavior becomes more human-like. “You really did just come here to chat, didn’t you?” Eleanor asks him after he stops by for a talk. “I guess so, why?” Michael responds. “It’s just a very human-y thing to do,” Eleanor reflects.
By the eighth episode of the second season, Michael’s boss comes to visit and the humans are fearful that he betrayed them.
But Michael’s tears of joy at seeing his friends escape the grasp of the Bad Place speak for themselves. “You guys, I was so scared for you,” he tells them, embracing Eleanor. “You’re my friends, and I wanted to save you!”
“I was just trying to prove that humans could torture each other,” Michael later tells his boss. “Instead, they helped each other, and got better.”
That’s not a popular opinion in Hell—that humans are capable of evolving. Suffering in the Bad Place happens for its own sake, as punishment for misdeeds in life—and the demons take for granted that humans are born selfish, their terribleness fixed and immutable.
Michaels’ experiment proves that’s not the case. In The Good Place, suffering drives change. But not suffering all by itself. It’s not just one’s own suffering that triggers change—it’s when other people’s suffering hits us in the gut. That’s when we know something is wrong, and we become motivated to right that wrong—as Michael does when he realizes, in the third season, that humanity is being unjustly condemned to Hell.
Michael isn’t human, but it’s the magic of perspective taking that drives him to make their afterlives better. There are many scientific studies that describe this dynamic, in different ways. For example, a pair of studies published in 2012 shows how perspective taking helped bridge divides between Israelis and Palestinians, and Mexican immigrants and white Americans in Arizona. The researchers asked participants to share perspectives about difficulties in their lives—and then to summarize the perspective of the out-groups after listening to their stories. In both studies, this exercise helped increase positive attitudes towards out-groups.
As The Good Place enters its fourth season, the four friends, along with Michael and Janet, find themselves presiding over yet another Bad-Place-Disguised-as-Good—but now it’s Eleanor who is in charge. Her mission: to prove that she wasn’t a fluke, and that terrible humans can change for the better in the afterlife. As Michael tells her, “This is a job for a human, one who’s tough but also empathetic.” When Eleanor arrived in the afterlife, she was only tough. It took dying for her to learn empathy—and that in turn enabled Eleanor to build bridges with people (and demons!) who were completely different from her.