Spoilers for season 1 finale of The Good Place.
When The Good Place premiered last fall, it arrived in the form of a sort of spiritual My Fair Lady. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead and has ascended to the show’s equivalent of Heaven, aka The Good Place. But Eleanor’s placement is a clerical error, and the existence she lived back on Earth was hardly worthy of a paradisiacal afterlife. With the help of her assigned soulmate, former moral ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), garbage human Eleanor begins learning how to be a better person.
At least, that was the redemption-style show viewers thought they were watching. Following a killer twist in the finale, the show has dumped its “how to be good” angle and is leaning hard into a sociopathic pattern that’s familiar to many people who played The Sims.
Consider the show’s big twist. (Spoilers ahead, naturally.) In the season 1 finale, Eleanor realizes she and her friends are actually in The Bad Place, and that Michael (Ted Danson), the architect behind it all, has actually concocted this world as a torture trial run. Their eternity will be free of the usual fire-and-brimstone torment. Instead, these four humans are punishing each other with their incessant flaws. Then their memories are wiped, and the scenario starts anew.
In season 2, viewers are brought in on the joke. Michael and his gang of eager actors plot out different ways to enact pain and suffering. Chidi can’t stand to make decisions, so he’s forced to choose between soulmates. Philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil) has always strived to impress her importance and elegance on the world, so she’s saddled with cargo pants and a short soulmate in a small house.
For viewers, delighting in this schadenfreude isn’t so different from the despair and anguish players have been inflicting on their avatars in The Sims since the first game launched in 2000. Crawl through places like Reddit long enough, and you’ll find many threads with players confessing their most inventive forms of torture. “I made a guy who was a compulsive neatfreak,” says one user from a 2015 thread. “Put him in a really surreal little house with a wedding buffet and a hamster or something, deleted the door. Eventually he went insane from lack of cleanliness and depression…” In 2016, there was this gem: “Giant two story maze, room in the middle of the bottom floor had a fridge and the one up top had a toilet. It took 48 sim hours to get through the maze.” Just yesterday, that wave of Sim torture reports started up again for some reason.
Much like Sims players trying their hand at dark situational humor, The Good Place’s creators understand the comedy of exploiting even the most minor annoyances. The fantastical nature of the show lets absurd plotlines — like flying shrimp or a trash storm — become legitimate problems. The show’s heroes will surely overcome their uniquely tailored hell, but for now, it’s delicious to watch them struggle. Like Sims in a doorless burning building, they have nowhere to go. Now, the series is about what they do in this specially designed hell.