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Words Matter—Especially on ‘The Good Place’

The show has given us endless food puns and a host of new curse words, but there’s also always been deeper meaning hidden in its language

NBC/Ringer illustration

Choices matter.

If you were forced to reduce The Good Place to two words, you could do worse. Of course, no one should force you to do such a thing to a show as multifaceted as the Michael Schur comedy set in a Technicolor version of the afterlife. It’s a show that can be equal parts thought-provoking and side-splitting—with more twists and turns than a Formula 1 track—a feat that may be unmatched in modern television history. (Name another high-concept comedy about moral philosophy, ethics, and life after death that could also be called one of the funniest shows on the air; I’ll wait.)

The Good Place argues that what you do matters, that actions have consequences—intentional and unintentional—and that things that appear to be black-and-white often are, on closer inspection, many shades of gray. And if choices matter, then the language of a show about why choices matter must also matter.

When our protagonist, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), first opens her eyes in the pilot, she’s greeted by a message: “Welcome! Everything is fine.” (As we’ll find out, this is an extremely debatable statement.) She then meets Michael (Ted Danson), who tells her that she’s dead, explains that in the afterlife there’s a Good Place and a Bad Place, and informs her that she’s in the former. Then he takes her on a tour of the neighborhood he’s designed for her and the other residents.

As the two walk through the immaculate streets, we get our first glimpses of a Good Place staple: There is a store called “Infinite Light,” another called “Your Anticipated Needs,” and a third called “The Small Adorable Animal Depot.” A sign for another exclaims “Everything Fits!” From the pilot to last week’s penultimate episode, Schur and his team have delighted in burying these minute jokes throughout the landscape of the show, little visual gags that are gone so quickly you’ll probably miss them unless you pore over the show frame by frame.

Take food, for instance. No one in the Good Place cooks; all meals happen in restaurants. (Who knows, maybe spending time in the kitchen on Earth costs people points.) In this version of heaven, dinner is served with a side of puns: “Lasagne Come Out Tomorrow,” “The Pesto’s Yet to Come,” and “You Do the Hokey Gnocchi and You Get Yourself Some Food.” In one iteration of the neighborhood, all the restaurants are stick-themed: “Hot Dog on a Stick on a Stick,” “Bagel on a Stick,” “Caviar on a Stick.” In the background, a woman walks by carrying a bagel on a stick and a sign advertises “Extra sticks.”

Screenshot and GIF via NBC

Before you say, “Oh, who gives a shish kebab,” put down your caviar on a stick and stay with me: These tiny details make the constructed universe of the show feel lived-in, like Michael and his demon coworkers (because, oh yeah, this show is also a send-up of the workplace comedy, complete with lava monsters complaining that the human skin suits itch too much) crossed every T and filled every eye with bees. They also break up the treatises on Kant for the eagle-eyed viewer looking for levity.

Later in the pilot, Eleanor introduces the audience to a recurring bit that may be a sneaky key to the entire show: In the Good Place, language is at once utterly fluent and totally constrained, an idea that in retrospect hints that things are not as they appear. Michael introduces Eleanor to her soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a Nigerian professor of ethics and moral philosophy who grew up in Senegal. When she comments on his excellent, and unaccented, English, he explains: “Oh, I’m actually speaking French. This place just translates whatever you say into a language the other person will understand. It’s incredible.”

The magical dissolution of the language barrier is a staple of science fiction, of course, and the idea that a person can say anything to anyone and be understood certainly seems to fit the tenets of the Good Place. But the show subverts that rule almost immediately, in an interesting way, when Eleanor confides in Chidi that she doesn’t belong: “Somebody royally forked up. Somebody forked up. Why can’t I say fork?”

This seemingly simple joke is the kind that The Good Place excels at, one that works on multiple levels: “Forked” is a silly spin on the expletive that Bell can’t say on network TV; her puzzled delivery is the perfect reaction to the fact that she’s trying to say one thing and her mouth is producing another; and, of course, she can say “fork.”

As he will throughout the thornier philosophical discussions at the heart of the show, Chidi fills the audience in. “If you’re trying to curse, you can’t here,” he says. “I guess a lot of people in this neighborhood don’t like it, so it’s prohibited.”

“That’s bullshirt,” Eleanor responds.

When you really think about it, though, it’s not. As a self-described “Arizona dirtbag,” cursing is a natural instinct for Eleanor—and since she’s really in the Bad Place, not being able to swear is part of her torture. After chaos erupts in the neighborhood when she acts up at the welcome party hosted by Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu, a.k.a. Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), she notes that “Things only started going crazy after I was an ashhole to everybody at the party. You know I’m trying to say ashhole, and not ashhole, right?”

Yes, Eleanor, we know what you’re trying to say. It’s more interesting to consider what the show is trying to say. Does free speech not exist in the Good Place? (That doesn’t seem ideal.) And if only the purest of the pure make it into the Good Place, would anyone who was meant to be there really choose to swear, anyway? (Judging by the actual Good Place residents Eleanor ultimately meets—one of whom resigns from a committee for the sin of being enthusiastic without prior approval—that seems unlikely.)

As the show comes to an end, it’s worth revisiting what it said at the beginning, because Schur and Co. weren’t just messing around: They were embedding a skeleton key to the show’s first massive reveal from the get-go. By the end of Season 1, Eleanor and Jason have been outed as “mistakes” and Chidi and Tahani have been pulled into the muck by association. Michael and Shawn, posing as the Judge, force the four of them to choose two people to go to the Bad Place as a new form of torture. The only problem with that is things get a little too literal, as listening to her three friends bicker (as D’Arcy Carden’s Janet looks on) gives Eleanor a moment of clarity that—spoiler alert for a four-year-old show that’s ending on Thursday night—“THIS is the Bad Place.”

All of that leads to an elite, should’ve-been-award-winning evil cackle from Michael, an almost literal heel turn made even more effective by the fact that it weaponizes Ted Danson’s everyman charisma:

And while the twist was incredibly effective, if you paid attention to the little hints from the very first moments you might’ve seen it coming. Consider: If you woke up and the first words you saw were “Welcome! Everything is fine,” wouldn’t that give you pause? You’re told that you’re in heaven … and things are just “fine”? Not fantastic; not splendid; not some as-yet-unheard-of word meaning transcendent mixed with euphoric mixed with the feeling you get when cuddling a fluffy puppy. Imagine the message in another context: You get a text from a friend or loved one that reads “Everything is fine.” I don’t know about you, but those words—punctuated with a period, that most dreaded of punctuation marks—would set off the alarm klaxons in my head. Those four words, sprawled in bright green across a white wall and seen over the protagonist’s shoulder, are a brilliant piece of misdirection, since in truth they mean the viewer (Eleanor and the people at home) is in hell and everything is decidedly not fine.

The importance of language is hammered home even more once Eleanor figures out Michael’s gambit, as his reboots tweak the greeting ever so slightly. When Eleanor opens her eyes at the end of the Season 1 finale, the text reads “Welcome! Everything is great!” Someone learned modern email etiquette.

The Good Place never shied away from its message, and it always understood that the way a message is delivered—the language, both visual and oral—matters.