Friday, May 26, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return (S3, eps 1 & 2)




The Giant: "You are far away."


Several years ago, when it seemed as clear as daylight that Twin Peaks was finished and done with forever and ever amen, I re-watched the show for Chud.com, one episode at a time. I was in the process of rewriting that material for publication as an e-book when something truly extraordinary happened – it was announced that Twin Peaks would return.


You could have knocked me over with an owl feather.

Twin Peaks is largely remembered by most people as an amalgamation of quirk and surrealism (coffee and cherry pie! Little dancing man! Curtains! Weird jazz music!), but those beloved elements, central as they were and are, were laid atop something much darker and more dangerous. As I wrote way back in the Ancient Year of 2010(!):

much of Twin Peaks’ cumulative power lies in its unblinking look at Evil. In its best moments this show offers a startlingly-clear view through grimy, warping glass at what feels and sounds and seems to be pretty much Evil Incarnate. …allow me to let someone smarter than I step in to start things off:

“Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of noirish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movies’ world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed….they have yielded themselves up to a Darkness way bigger than any one person….Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are – at least potentially – everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time – not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now.”

 – excerpted from ‘David Lynch Keeps His Head,” by David Foster Wallace

Wallace submits in his (great, great) essay that all of Lynch’s films focus on Evil, and that this focus comes without the comforting narrative fiction that is clear “moral victory.” As in Lynch’s films overall, so also in Twin Peaks. When people do terrible things on this show there are sometimes consequences. But there are sometimes no consequences at all. Lynch doesn’t introduce Evil into Twin Peaks so that Good can vanquish it. Lynch introduces Evil as fact, as uncaring force of nature – a storm to (maybe) survive but not vanquish; not really, not ever.”

The coffee and the cherry pie of Twin Peaks are admittedly swell, but the show’s primary focus was always Evil, in all its many forms; not simply the evil that men do, but Evil as “environment, possibility, force.” That focus on Evil is as strong and as disquieting as ever in the two-hour premiere of Twin Peaks: The Return – a piece of television that is a direct and largely unambiguous thematic continuation of what came before (while still being wonderfully indirect and ambiguous in a whole bunch of different ways). When Twin Peaks returned on Sunday it spent precious little time amidst the Douglas Firs, or lingering over hot black coffee, or indulging in gentle quirk, but if you’re a longtime “Peaks Freak” then what you saw in The Return was both largely comprehensible and pretty darned exciting. Given how Lynch’s films increasingly abandoned straightforward narrative for abstraction, this was something of a surprise and a relief. Much as I can admire it from a distance, 18 hours of Inland Empire isn’t a trip I was particularly excited to take.

Don’t mistake what follows as an attempt to authoritatively “decode” The Return. That’s futile. Instead, in my patented roundabout manner, I want to continue to talk about the themes and ideas that Lynch and Frost have explored and continue to explore in the world of Twin Peaks, and to continue constructing my own meaning from the story Lynch and Frost are telling.

What happens in the first two hours of The Return? First and foremost, we are reintroduced to Special Agent Dale Cooper, confirmed to have spent the last 25 years trapped in the waiting room of the Black Lodge while his doppleganger (Coopleganger?), who may also be possessed by Bob (Booper?) (…….Booper Coopleganger!), roams free in the “real" world.

On top of that, David Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost spend their time crafting an expanded universe around the two Coopers – a universe that’s spread far beyond the borders of their titular town to explicitly encompass New York City, South Dakota, and Las Vegas. We get glimpses of good ol’ Twin Peaks, Washington itself but those glimpses are either brief, appropriately bizarre vignettes or are largely in the service of establishing and detailing the main Cooper storyline.

Let’s tackle the two-hour premiere by splitting it into locations.

***



THE ADVENTURES OF BOOPER COOPLEGANGER IN SOUTH DAKOTA

Dale Cooper is the primary focus of these first two hours, and so it makes sense to begin with his doppleganger, introduced after a wonderfully Lynchian POV-shot of a nighttime drive set to a twisted version of “American Woman,” Cooper’s doppleganger is a stoically chilly SOB who evidently takes his fashion cues from Jamie Sheridan’s portrayal of Randall Flagg in 1991’s The Stand.


 

I’ve written at length before about Twin Peaks’s preoccupation with twins and mirrors, and the Coopleganger serves as a dark mirror of Cooper himself – right down to the preference for handheld recording devices. He’s also a twinned reflection of BOB, that greasy, longhaired embodiment of primal Evil.

 

Exactly what Booper Coopleganger has been up to for 24 years is unclear, but it ain’t good (and from now on let’s call him “Mister C,” as he’s dubbed in the show itself, so that I don’t run a goofy joke straight into the ground). There’s every indication that Mister C’s spent that time wallowing in sin and darkness. We watch as he recruits two associates, Ray and Daria (whose name, uttered by Mister C, sounds remarkably like “Diane”), for some sort of nefarious purpose involving the secretary of one Mr. Bill Hastings, whom we meet in this episode, and some numbers. Whatever that purpose is, it has to do with what he WANTS, and not what he NEEDS.

Mister C: "WANT. Not NEED. I don't need anything, Ray. If there's one thing you should know about me it's that I don't NEED anything. I WANT."

That is one very interesting philosophy, and it ties back directly into the original series and one of its primary themes. First, recall Dale Cooper’s words to Audrey in Season One, Episode 6, “Realization Time”:

Agent Cooper: “What I want and what I need are two different things Audrey.”

The two Coopers both draw a clear distinction between “want” and “need,” and operate on opposite sides of that distinction. For Agent Dale Cooper, “wants” are to be shunned in favor of “need’ – with the implication being that mere want is a lesser thing, the call of the body at the expense of the soul. For Mister C, “needs” are to be shunned in favor of “wants” – with the implication being that “needs” are weaknesses and that “wants” are strengths.

All of this evokes and buttresses the original series' fascination with animal appetite and with evil for the sake of evil; evil consciously chosen. Mister C appears to be asserting that he is not controlled by his appetites, he chooses them. This aligns perfectly with Lynch's unnerving philosophy of evil as a force - a free-floating malign energy that has frightening agency and takes uneasy pleasure in acts of darkness - not compelled to do them but freely choosing them, descending into a primal animal state to revel in its own malevolence.

Twin Peaks has always been deeply interested in Appetites. The original series and its characters were obsessed with food (recall Ben Horne tearing into a brie and butter sandwich like a man starving in the desert).On a larger scale, the kind of raw hunger and deep appreciation for food shown throughout Twin Peaks is echoed on a lot of levels within the narrative; hunger for sex, for drugs, for violence, for sin, for abandon, basically – an abandonment of what one “needs” in favor of what one “wants,” consequences be damned. That current of want over need – of consuming animal appetites – is re-embodied in Cooper’s transformation from one who needs to one who wants. 

How could Lynch and Frost make this thematic point even clearer? Well, they might include a seemingly throwaway scene in which Laura’s mother is shown watching horribly gory footage of lions feeding at night, of literal animals literally indulging their appetites. And how might they tie the scene and that footage back to Mister C and to Bob and to the sort of corrupting, primal, animal “wants” that Bob (and now Mister C) embody? They might choose to end that throwaway scene by focusing in on the mirror behind Mrs. Palmer’s head, where we can glimpse the animals as they continue to feed and Mrs. Palmer adopts a look of horror. That shot is a direct callback to the image in the original TP pilot in which we were oh-so-subtly introduced to Bob for the first time. Not coincidentally, Mrs. Palmer is seated on her couch and looking terrified. Now look in the mirror:



Right there, reflected in the mirror, is the show's primary personification of animal appetites. It’s no accident that Lynch shot Mrs. Palmer’s brief scene as a seemingly intentional reflection of that earlier scene, given the show’s preoccupation with twins/doubles/mirror images.

 

What Mister C “wants” is underlined a final time over the course of these two hours during his tense dialogue/confrontation with Daria, who along with Ray has apparently been hired by someone to double-cross and kill Mister C (as for who that might be? Scroll down to the Vegas section):

Coopleganger: “Anybody ever show this to you before? Do you know what this is? This is what I want.”

Before Mister C murders Daria with a shot to the head – the third woman to be shown as having died in this particular manner over the course of two hours – he shows her a playing card. It’s an ace of spades, which immediately brings to mind One-Eyed Jack’s, the gambling establishment and den of all-around iniquity from the original series. The central spade on the card has been inked over by hand, in favor of a different shape – what might be a distorted version of the owl cave symbol.



 

That symbol is branded onto the mysterious green ring that plays such a prominent and totally-unexplained part in the narrative of Twin Peaks, linking the ring to the cave and both things, ultimately, to the Red Room/Black Lodge. In Fire Walk With Me it's heavily indicated that the ring has the ability to bring people into the Red Room/Black Lodge.

So what are we to make of this? Well, we know that Mister C is “supposed to get pulled back to this thing called the black lodge.” We know that the owl cave ring has some kind of seemingly mystical properties involving transportation/teleportation, and that it has transported people to the Red Room. Is it possible that possessing it might keep a doppleganger from being transported against its will? We’ll see!

There’s a little more plot here, involving Cooper downloading plans for a Yankton South Dakota prison from the FBI database (and can we take a moment here to pause and appreciate the ways in which Lynch and his collaborators have melded modern technology and filmmaking with comparatively archaic effects-work? I genuinely ADORE that Cooper’s Microsoft Surface has a display screen that looks like it was programmed in the 90s), and we’ll see what that amounts to soon enough. Before I move on to other things, let’s take a look at the conversation that Mister C has with “Philip Jeffries.”

Phillip Jeffries was the FBI Agent played by David Bowie in Fire Walk With Me – another agent of law and order targeted by the Black Lodge for unknown reasons. However, David Bowie is deceased, and the voice on the other end of Mister C’s call doesn’t sound a thing like The Thin White Duke. Is it possible that Jeffries has a doppleganger as well, currently running around the “real” world like Mister C? I’d say that’s a distinct possibility. As I’ve previously noted the Black Lodge seems to have a real mad-on for FBI agents; Bowie, the agent played by Chris Isaak at the start of FWWM, and Dale Cooper have all been seized by the Lodge. Perhaps the reason for the targeting of FBI agents is a conscious effort to replace agents of righteous order with double-agents of chaos and darkness (Twin Peaks loves its doubles/twins!).

Doubly intriguing is “Jeffries’” mention of Major Garland Briggs – one of my very favorite characters from the original series. Briggs has intimate ties to the Black and White Lodges, and more knowledge about the mythology of Twin Peaks than anyone else. The actor who played him, Don S. Davis, passed away several years ago. Unless “Jeffries” was referring to Bobby Briggs during his call with Mister C I’m not sure how Lynch and Frost intend to involve this character – but I can’t wait to find out. As for Jeffries, he seems to know a lot about Mister C, telling him that “you’re going back in tomorrow (to the Lodge), and I’ll be with Bob again.” Whoever this Jeffries is, he seems to be acquainted with Bob and has perhaps been possessed by him before. A strong thread throughout the show is the way in which being possessed by Bob is both something filthy and something ecstasy-inducing for those who experience it – a thread that confirms David Foster Wallace’s notion of evil being something that “transports” the characters in Lynch’s works.

Mister C’s narrative section finishes with him ending his call, leaving the room containing Daria’s dead body, and proceeding to go next door where another version of “Dark Diane” (a double, if you will) is waiting for him – played by a very welcome Jennifer Jason Leigh – and just before Booper Coopleganger initiates sex with her she’s ordered to clean up the murder in the next door.

Multiple women are murdered throughout these two hours – three of them gaining gruesome, gaping holes in their faces. It’s revolting stuff, and this particular thematic constant is the place where Twin Peaks makes me most uncomfortable. Twin Peaks has always featured acts of horrific violence against women, and The Return continues that pattern to genuinely disturbing effect. Speaking for myself I have always viewed that violence as commentary about the ways in which women are victimized, as opposed to Lynch taking pleasure in staging that violence, but I confess to curiosity over how the new wave of socially conscious criticism will react. Criticism has evolved a great deal since the original series aired, and in particular has focused over the past few years on whether television shows and films are properly socially conscious. Whether you very much like or vehemently dislike this trend, it’s a trend, and I’m genuinely curious as to what those critics will make of all this violence against women.

…Which brings us to the other half of the South Dakota narrative – the murder of librarian Ruth Davenport, apparently at the hands of local businessman Bill Hastings, played by a shockingly effective Matthew Lillard. The lead up to the discovery of Davenport’s severed head is the only portion of The Return that doesn’t really work for me – Mrs. Green, her verbal tics, and Max Perlich’s rando neighbor character just aren’t all that interesting or amusing or even oddball, they’re just sort of there – but everything else about this part of the narrative works like gangbusters because so much of it encapsulates the show’s strengths, from the overwrought-but-effective soapy elements (“Life in prison, Bill!”) to the investigative elements (the scene between Lillard and the cop he’s known since school is wonderfully done), to the dashes of quirk (“But the Morgans are coming to dinner!”) to the ominous intrusions of the supernatural. The Mister C/Bill Hastings threads are clearly intertwined on a number of levels: (1) Mister C mentions getting “information from Hastings’s secretary,” (2) Mister C appears in the Hastings’s home and shoots Hastings’s wife in a manner identical to how Davenport was killed – via a gunshot to the face, and (3) Bill Hastings may be possessed by Bob, or by another Lodge spirit.

The spirits of the Lodge make themselves known throughout this part of the narrative – first, when detectives search Bill Hastings’s car. As they do so one of their flashlights flickers on and off, on and off. Electrical abnormalities have popped up in multiple places throughout the life of Twin Peaks – first during the Season One pilot, during the examination of Laura Palmer’s body, when the morgue lights flicker on and off like a strobe. Electricity also features heavily in Fire Walk With Me. As I wrote in my overview of that film: Whether electricity is a means of transportation/manifestation for Lodge spirits, or whether electrical abnormalities simply signal their presence is not clear. But it is clear that the two things are connected.”

Longtime viewers will also be reminded of Bob when Matthew Lillard claims, with seeming sincerity, that he “had a dream that night…that I was in [Ruth Davenport’s] apartment.” In the world of Twin Peaks the un/subconscious is a place of grave danger and great grace, and Hastings’s “dream” could very well be evidence that he is responsible for Davenport’s death, either because he has been/is possessed by Bob, or is being ridden by another Lodge “parasite” similar to Bob. And what do we see directly after the camera pans away from Lillard, disconsolate in his jail cell? Why, it’s a damnfreaky spirit!

Finally, there is the question of whether Hastings’s wife was similarly possessed by a Lodge spirit. There’s certainly evidence to that effect. For one, she clearly knows Mister C and he clearly knows her (and George). Recall what Lillard says to her from behind bars: “I know about you and George! ..And maybe somebody else, too!” That “somebody else” is almost certainly Mister C. Now recall what Mister C says to Hastings’s wife just before he shoots her: “You did good. You follow human nature perfectly.”

That’s a verrrrry intriguing line of dialogue. It could mean simply that she has acted in the sort of way Mister C expects human beings to act, and that he approves of that. It could also mean that she’s a Lodge spirit inhabiting a human body, impressing Mister C by how well that spirit knows human nature. I’m fascinated by that idea since it suggests that there are multiple Lodge apparitions operating out in the real world, sometimes in concert and sometimes in opposition to each other.

***
TWIN PEAKS, WASHINGTON

Lynch and Frost stop by their titular town only intermittently, but it’s a welcome pit stop along a darkened highway. We’re reintroduced to the Horne brothers, Ben and Jerry (named, as longtime fans of the show are aware, after the ice cream makers), and through them to a new character played by Ashley Judd. What any of them have to do with the larger being told is totally unclear, but it’s great to see the Hornes once more. David Patrick Kelly’s Jerry, introduced crooning “Saltyyyyyy…crunchyyyy” like the frequent Richard Foreman collaborator that he is, remains freakishly food-obsessed, and that fetish can only have gotten more acute now that he’s involved in the legal weed industry. For longtime fans their cockeyed banter is like sativa-laced manna from heaven.

Also popping up, even more briefly, is Doctor Lawrence Jacoby – formerly Laura Palmer’s skeevy psychiatrist and now, apparently, resident of the Ghostwood forest that borders the town of Twin Peaks. We’re treated to an extended scene of Jacoby receiving a shipment of shovels, which for now amounts to an amusingly Lynchian non sequitur. Is Jacoby digging something up? Burying something? Recall that in the original series he was the one who unearthed Laura’s half of the locket.

The show also takes us back to the Roadhouse’s “Bang Bang Bar,” where we’re reintroduced to Shelly and James (and a Renault brother tending bar!) and it’s here, oddly, where nostalgia packed the biggest punch for me as a viewer. Shelly may be dead wrong about James (James was never cool, Shelly – and initially that lack of coolness was a real asset to the character…at least until Evelyn Marsh showed up), but it’s great to see them both. I remain firmly on the fence about Balthazar Getty.

Finally, we have the portion of the show devoted to Twin Peaks’ Sherriff’s Department. It’s in these sections that co-writers Lynch and Mark Frost tether their town to the larger unfolding narrative. These segments are also where we learn that there are two Trumans. “One is sick, and one is fishing.” We can assume, since Michael Ontkean did not return for Season three, that Harry Truman is “sick,” and that Robert Forster, who auditioned for the role of Harry Truman back in the day and is cast in Season Three, is the Truman who is “fishing.” And, incidentally, Lucy and Andy have a kid! His name is Wally! Looking forward to meeting you, Wally!

In reintroducing well-loved characters Andy, Lucy, Hawk, and Margaret (aka The Log Lady, played by Catherine Coulson, who died in 2015) the show also conveys for us the basic information we need to connect the dots between the ending of Season Two and the beginning of Season Three. It’s in this section that we learn Cooper “disappeared” 24 years ago, and has not been seen since. It’s here that The Log Lady communicates urgently with Deputy Chief Hawk about Cooper, telling him that “Something is missing, and you have to find it.” She informs him that “The way you will find it has something to do with your heritage” – a comment that fits perfectly with what we know of the show’s mythology so far (recall the “Owl Cave,” a remnant of the area’s Native American tribes). It also fits with what Cooper told Hawk in Season Two of the original series: “Hawk, if I ever get lost, I hope you’re the man they send to find me.” Cooper’s instincts were right on, because Hawk immediately returns to Glastonbury Grove, the gateway between our “real” world and the Black Lodge/Red Room. There he catches a glimpse of the show’s iconic curtains, before we’re suddenly whisked away from Twin Peaks and back to the Red Room.

 ***

THE RED ROOM

From cryptic black and white conversation between Cooper and The Giant to a sentient, malevolent statue, this Red Room has it all: Arms. Curtains. NONEXISTENCE.

It’s also a reflection of itself, with an older Cooper and an older Laura occupying the same positions and space that they occupied 25 years ago – in footage that we see at the very start of the episode. We were first introduced to the idea of an aged Cooper inhabiting the Red Room way back in Season 1 episode 3, which aired on April 19, 1990. Twin Peaks is radically obsessed with Twins and twinning, right up to and including its titular mountains. People and events mirror one another. In the Red Room/Black Lodge this is made literal, with older and younger versions of the characters occupying the same space/time and recreating scenes from the original run (with Laura repeating the famously bizarro line “I feel like I know her…but sometimes my arms bend back”). Past scenes from the show are replayed, blending the narrative’s past and present. Then there are, of course, the evil/crazy/savage “dopplegangers” that inhabit this strange space; just as the Black Lodge exists as the “shadow” of the White Lodge, so these dopplegangers exist as the “shadow-selves” of these characters, reflecting the primal subconscious.

Finally, there’s the way in which the first portion of Cooper’s Red Room experience appears to loop back on itself – to double up, if you will – ending where it began: with Cooper and the man that longtime viewers know as Mike, seated together in the Red Room. That sense of the narrative doubling back on itself lends further credence to the notion that in the Red Room, and in the universe of Twin Peaks generally, time is capable of doubling back on itself. “Is it future? Or is it past?” asks Mike, and that’s not a rhetorical question. In Twin Peaks it’s well established that the past repeats itself, that cycles run in circles like literal and figurative rings.

And then…well…a bunch of stuff happens. Much of that stuff is so loaded with symbolism and surrealism that it’s impossible to say with certainty what it “means,” which is part of the point of the show, frankly, and always has been. Like, say, Cooper informing Laura that she’s dead. She tells him that “I’m dead…and yet I live” and then proceeds to TAKE HER FACE OFF. What’s behind that face is pure light, and that light could “mean” a bunch of things.

The ambiguity of the show’s symbolism is a strength, allowing us to project meaning onto those symbols in a way that’s more powerful than having concrete meaning assigned. To give one more example: during the Red Room sequences we are shown a white horse – a horse that we have seen once before on the original series, and have read about in The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer – a tie-in novel which covers the same ground as Fire Walk With Me (and does so, in no small part, as effectively as FWWM). That novel spends no small amount of time describing the horse that Laura’s father pretended to have bought her for her birthday (but which was actually purchased by Ben Horne, letting us know that Horne’s creepy fixation on Laura was in place at age 13). There are cultures that view the white horse as symbolic of spiritual purity/power/honor/redemption/resurrection/the Sun/victory over darkness. In other words, it’s generally and widely considered as a symbol with positive associations. So what’s it doing in the Red Room? Well, it’s very possible that Lynch means it to symbolize Laura’s lost innocence, but the answer is that there’s simply no way to know. Lynch traffics in symbolism without concrete “meaning,” and I’ve argued pretty forcefully in the past that to reduce the horse to any one interpretation is very much beside the point.

If you were a reader of my Twin Peaks columns, back in the day, then you know already that I have very specific ideas about that space and the things within it, and I’ll reiterate those ideas as we go along. However, they’re my ideas, not some key to unlocking the “true” meaning of Twin Peaks, and that’s a distinction well worth reiterating. Trying to parse the show that way is, I think, mostly a fruitless exercise. It’s not WHOLLY fruitless, because Twin Peaks is a collaborative effort between a man who has little use for narrative coherency and a man who takes great pleasure in constructing mythology. It is possible, to give one example, that when a talking tree informs Cooper to remember “253,” it is perhaps referring to a Washington state area code to pick one possible meaning – after all, Twin Peaks is located in Washington. It is much, much more likely that the tree is referring to something else entirely, which will only become clear once the meaning of that number is fully revealed to us (recall, as example, the clue of a “smiling bag” in the original series and you’ll remember just how amusingly unhelpful most of the show’s “clues” really are).

All that said, here are a few more thoughts on what we see in the Red Room:

 “The Arm,” formerly played by Michael J. Anderson and previously known as “the little man from another place”, is now, apparently, a tree with something fleshy and faceless pulsing atop it. Twin Peaks set up this bizarre transformation over TWENTY YEARS AGO, when the Little Man made his final appearance in the original series:

 

WHOA.

The Arm’s purpose within the overarching mythology of Twin Peaks remains incredibly unclear. The Little Man projected a kind of quirky malevolence, and in FWWM Lynch appeared to suggest that the Little Man, Mike, and Bob were all united in the goal of collecting and feeding on “garmonbozia” (otherwise known as “fear, and the pleasures”). We know that at some point, Mike cut off his arm (or his Arm) in order to repent and escape the influence of Evil. Given the way that time and space circle and loop back on themselves in this universe, is it possible that both Mike and The Arm have now repented, and that both are attempting to help Cooper?
 
The episode kicks it up another notch when it introduces an evil tree-doppleganger (Lord I love this weirdo show) which seemingly boots Cooper out of the Lodge entirely through the floor, where he lands on top of a giant glass box that’s sticking out of the side of a building.

In order for Dale to truly leave the Red Room/Black Lodge we are told that his doppleganger must return. Since we know that Mister C has a plan to prevent himself from being drawn back to the Lodge, and since we know that time runs very differently within the Red Room, can we presume that when Mike says “something’s wrong,” he’s referring to the failure of the doppleganger to return? That when Cooper is ejected from the Red Room in apparent spiritual form it is so that he can, like a reverse-Bob, possess someone with the goal of finding Booper Coopleganger and forcing him to return?  That the glass box that Dale Cooper enters, and in which he is seemingly “processed,” is designed to help transport Cooper into a new body?

***
NEW YORK CITY

And speaking of that large, weird, glass box, the New York City portion of The Return is somehow its most obtuse. A mysterious, for-now-anonymous billionaire benefactor has sponsored a bizarre art project/science experiment (I would imagine that “Audrey Horne” is a good possible answer to the question of that billionaire’s identity, but given the ways in which time and space are already being played with it’s possible that Mister C or Cooper himself are responsible for the box – possibly via a connection in Las Vegas (and more on that directly below). The giant glass box that they’ve paid to construct and surround with cameras underlines another of Twin Peaks’s consistent themes: voyeurism. From Blue Velvet to Lost Highway to, of course, Twin Peaks, glimpsing things we shouldn’t, of peering in on things uninvited; of being made aware as a viewer of your own gaze and how you, as a viewer, are a voyeur yourself. One of my favorite instances of this theme comes in Season One, when James and Donna dress Maddie her cousin Laura in order to investigate Dr. Jacoby. Unbeknownst to them, Bobby watches them from the bushes. Unbeknownst to any of them, someone else is watching all of them. And unbeknownst to any of the characters, we’re watching them.

Here, in the first two hours of The Return, Lynch returns to his obsession with the voyeuristic impulse, capturing the cameras that surround the mysterious box with the same dispassionately fetishistic eye with which he captures the naked body of Tracey, the unfortunate young woman who is doomed to die simply because she couldn’t wait for the object of her obsession to finish his shift.

Both Tracey and Sam are charming blanks who speak in the soap clich├ęs of vintage Peaks (“You’re a bad girl, Tracey.” “Try me.”), and their blankness feels intentional, as though these New York City scenes are intended to be dreamlike in a different but no less purposeful sense than the surrealist scenes in the Red Room. Both characters speak as if in a dream, and the essential set-up of this NYC world is dreamlike; a young girl bearing coffee cups marked with “Zs” (Zzzzzz) nevertheless gets granted access to a waiting area with a posted guard (who suddenly, inexplicably disappears) and high tech door, the giant glass box, the strangely formal arrangement of couch, side table, bonsai, and the ring of cameras.

And then things get really strange.

What is the negative image that appears in the box? How’s it connected to Cooper, if at all? Is it possible that the image is Laura, erupting out of the Red Room in a fit of rage? Sure. That's possible. It’s also possible that it’s a Garmonbozia-ghost from Planet Zerp. Your guess is as good as mine! Either way, SOMETHING erupts from that glass box and tears those two charming blanks apart. Was that entity drawn to Sam and Tracey’s primal animal passions? That seems possible, given Peaks’ themes. It also seems possible that it’s there as a direct result of what Sam and Tracey didn’t see: the arrival of Dale Cooper’s spirit. I’d conjecture that the spirit who erupts from the box and kills the unlucky couple may just be pursuing Cooper, but at this point it’s impossible to tell.

Either way, the way in which the New York City narrative and the Red Room narrative overlap and encircle one another reinforce again the notion of time as something cyclical and circular, folding over onto itself in a ring.

Which brings us, finally, to…
 
***
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA

Just a single scene, starring Patrick “DON’T LOOK BEHIND THE DINER” Fischler as Mister Todd, a frightened-eyed business type ordering some kind of payment to somebody or other. "Why do you let him make you do these things?" asks Mister Todd’s associate, Roger. "Roger... you better hope that you never get involved with someone like him. Never have someone like him...in your life."

And that’s it. It’s a wisp of a scene, but in the context of these two hours it leaves me wondering: Is Todd responsible for hiring Ray and Daria to kill Mister C? He seems to have the motive, assuming that the “him” Todd refers to is Mister C. Is Mister Todd connected to the mysterious billionaire funding techno-occult research in New York City? I have no idea. You have no idea. And yet here we are, puzzling it out and savoring the act.

 ***

...Whew. That's all I've got for now. I'm a little out of practice at this, but boy did I enjoy assembling these thoughts. I can feel the ol' muscles limbering up, and I hope you'll come on back and geek out along with me as The Return continues. Next week I'll take a look at Season 3, eps 3 and 4.
  
 


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Do No Harm: The Quiet Marvel of Doctor Strange


 
 
"Primum non nocere" is a foundational precept of medicine. Every healthcare student learns it, and you’ve probably heard it before. It translates as "First, do no harm," and that deceptively simple-seeming precept arguably acts as a driving theme of Doctor Strange – maybe the first superhero movie since Christopher Reeve played Superman to feature a hero who overtly rejects killing his enemies, out of what seems like genuine ethical revulsion. 

That rejection and revulsion arguably shouldn't be a big deal, but in our current Golden Age of Superhero Cinema it's actually a pretty big deal since no other Marvel cinematic hero seems to share that same firm combination of rejection/revulsion*. Marvel's cinematic universe is filled with heroic characters who nobly seek to protect people, and who routinely kill large numbers of hydra operatives/aliens/elves/sentient robots/etc. in the process. In stark contrast, Stephen Strange is markedly opposed to the idea of killing anyone (even the David Bowie-eyed cultist trying to draw the entire planet into "the dark dimension") and he barks disdain at the idea of “righteous violence” without hesitation or shading. Stephen Strange is indirectly responsible for the killing of exactly one person in his debut outing. That death is accidental (as far as Strange’s choice in the matter goes), and he is utterly, vocally, disgusted by it.

What’s even more interesting is that the film as a whole reflects Strange's articulated disgust with killing, and acts more broadly as a quiet rejection of the sort of de rigor death and destruction that superhero flicks tend to blithely dish out. Doctor Strange’s entire finale is a literal reversal of the typical Marvel climax, namely: a lengthy fight resulting in the deaths of many opponents, the destruction of much property. Strange’s finale instead features the film’s protagonist engaging in a lengthy battle that he then literally reverses - mystically turning back the clock on all of the damage and death around him; symbolically negating the violence and returning to the role of healer as buildings knit themselves back together and the dead are revived before our eyes. In sharp contrast to the rest of Marvel’s protagonists, Strange achieves his victory by outright rejecting violence as the solution to his problems and stitching back together what has been torn apart.

 What’s more, Doctor Strange disposes of its primary antagonist non-violently, and even compassionately. There are other, more critical pieces out there about whether Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is a “good villain” in the traditional cinematic sense (is he sufficiently “evil”? Nuanced? Interesting? Colorful?). For the purposes of this piece I’m not interested in that question. What I am interested in is that he’s a somewhat sympathetic villain who is dealt with not via execution, but by giving him exactly what he claims to want. That’s an unusual tact to take in these sorts of films but it’s impactful for being unusual, and it underlines again the notion of “doing no harm.”

These details in the film advance a surprisingly non-violent philosophy, but the film’s final confrontation triple underlines the point as Strange faces off against (a regrettably enormous, computer-generated, non-flaming) Dormammu and promptly dies. 

…And dies. 

And dies and dies and dies and dies and dies and dies and dies.

And dies.

The final battle between good and evil in Doctor Strange doesn't involve a battle at all actually; it doesn’t feature feats of physical strength or morally murky decisions to do violence or morally defensible decisions to kill an enemy or the deaths of hundreds/thousands of mindless ones. The final battle between good and evil involves Stephen Strange simply and sincerely and selflessly** sacrificing himself – over and over and over again, like a psychedelic Christ at the foot of a black-light Golgotha. It involves Strange voluntarily enduring life-ending pain in dozens upon dozens of different combinations in order to spare the world condemnation to an eternity of suffering. Doctor Strange is here to die for your sins in a rockin' cape, people.

Director Scott Derrickson speaks openly in interviews about his faith, and as a result it isn't hard to see evidence of its influence in Strange's self-sacrifice. However, nothing about that choice demands that you view it through any kind of faith lens. Regardless of your personal beliefs the final confrontation between Strange and Dormammu is unusual and original, smart, giddily rousing, and oddly moving simply because it defies convention and embraces the nobility of sacrifice over the easier catharsis of violence. I grew up loving comics, and the rise of the Golden Age of superhero cinema has been incredibly exciting for me, but even I’m frankly tired of watching heroes slay hordes of literally or figuratively faceless henchmen; as if their status as cannon fodder justifies their use as cannon fodder. And as Strange returns from death over and over, shouting about bargains, one can see a viable, creative alternative to the sort of diminishingly impactful, high-body count carnage we’ve been acclimated to.

And that’s quietly Marvelous.

__________
*I would argue that there’s a valid ethical distinction to be drawn between (1) Stephen Strange, who rejects killing outright, (2) Steve Rogers, who doesn’t want to kill anyone but will and does, and, (3) Scott Lang (Ant-Man), who manages not to intentionally kill anyone during the course of his movie and who also voices no opinion on the matter whatsoever. “Do no harm” is an articulated mission statement in Doctor Strange, backed up by Strange’s actual behavior and choices.
 
 
**All of that said, it would be a mistake to assign too much selflessness to the character of Stephen Strange. What keeps the character flawed and interesting – what makes the promise of a sequel even more tantalizing than fancy effects – is that Strange is still dangerously self-certain and arguably selfish, and his definition of “doing harm” is (perhaps unavoidably) subjective.

After all, "Primum no nocere" is, like most precepts, much more complicated than it seems. "Do no harm" doesn't just mean “don’t kill anyone,” nor does it equate to “save a life at any cost.” It’s a much broader, much more morally flexible idea, one that says “it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.”

Take that broader, more flexible idea and apply it to the film and suddenly Mordo’s point of view starts to make a lot of sense. Yes, Strange saves the world by acting as he does but in the process he risks causing much more harm than good. Turning back time has real consequences; large, potentially universe-altering consequences that Strange does not really seem to think or care about. He is, selfishly and arguably narcissistically, most concerned about saving lives at literally any cost – even irreparably damaging the fabric of space and time. He is, to the end, cavalier in his approach to heroism and while it works out for him in this one instance there is a very good ethical argument that, in the broader sense, Strange remains arrogant and impulse-driven in genuinely dangerous ways.

What makes Mordo an interesting foil to Strange (despite the unfortunate lack of time devoted to more fully develop his character – an issue I would expect to see addressed head-on in any sequel)  is that they are both blind in one eye, and are handily representative of two competing, inherently conflicting schools of thought.

On the one hand, Strange is right: life is really complicated, moral grays are a fact of that life, and Mordo is being far too rigid by rejecting that fact and opting for a fanatical absolutism. The Ancient One can be both well-intentioned and flawed in her choice to take power from dubious sources. One does not necessarily cancel out the other.

On the other hand, Mordo is right: Strange is reckless, and although he seems to accept the moral grays that Mordo cannot, he simply accepts a different set of moral grays. Where Mordo cannot abide the way that sorcerers bend the laws of nature without regard for the consequences, Strange similarly cannot abide the thought of deference to the laws of nature.

And that’s quietly Marvelous as well.  

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Excerpts from A Christmas Carol (2016)


 
I.

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that – believe me! The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Trump signed it. And, depending quite heavily on whether the bank was foreign or domestic, Trump’s name was good upon ‘change, for anything he chose to put his tiny little hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing absolutely tremendous and really terrific can come of the story I am going to relate.

Oh! But he was an itsy-bitsy-fisted hand at the grindstone, Trump! A squeezing, wrenching, pussy-grabbing, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as Sharper Image, back in the 80s, when that company was really something let me tell you; self-Tweeting, and solitary as an oyster. Some kind of possibly-sentient Orange Julius was on his head, and on his eyebrows. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

Once upon a time – of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve – old Trump sat busy in his golden tower. It was cold bleak, biting weather: foggy withal, and he could hear the people in the court outside go protesting up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones, shouting “Not my President!” and a bunch of other stuff he couldn’t possibly actually hear, given the insulating effect of living in solid gold rooms, but the knowledge of them nonetheless stirred his ire.

At length the hour of shutting up the golden Tower arrives. With an ill-will Trump dismounted from his very expensive golden chair/throne/obnoxiously open critique of the excesses of capitalism, and addressed the expectant clerk , Bob Crachit.

“You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?” said Trump.

“If quite convenient, Mr. Trump.”

“Fuck convenient,” said Trump. “If I docked your pay for wasting my time with this Christmas nonsense, the government’d sue me. Luckily, I’ll be the government soon. So we’ll just see about this day-off business, going forward.”

Crachit smiled, faintly.
 

II.

“You are fettered,” said Trump, who didn’t actually know what the word ‘fettered’ meant, and didn’t care that he didn’t know, because books are for eggheads and learning is for losers. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

“Don’t go in for chains, myself,” replied Trump. “Not my thing. I do know a guy who could do it for you in gold, though. Very classy.”

“Would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” asked Trump. “I don’t see any chain around me. Who sent you? The Washington Post? Bezos is in trouble, come January. What’s your business here?”

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands . “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

“This is all very sad,” said Trump. “Very uninteresting.”

``You will be haunted,'' proclaimed the Ghost, ``by Three Spirits. Without their visits,'' said the Ghost, ``you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.''

“One is very bad for me. I’m scheduled to meet Kanye again at one. Call my secretary and speak to her about setting up an appointment. I’m very busy right now.”
 

III.

When Trump awoke, it was so dark, that looking out of bed, he could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque walls of his chamber. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside, I tell you, by a hand; and Trump, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them. At the spirit’s appearance Trump turned white as a sheet, which but for a moment gave him the aspect of his enthusiastic booster, David Duke.

``Who, and what are you?'' Trump demanded.

``I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.''

“I don’t do the past,” said Trump. “Very unrewarding.”

“Learning from the past prevents one from repeating it,” intoned the spirit.

“Very. Unrewarding.” emphasized Trump.

Despite his many protestations, the Ghost of Christmas Past spirited old Trump away to revisit his past actions, returning him to his godawfully gaudy quarters as if in the blink of an eye.

“And now you see the ways in which your actions – your greed and your selfishness – have harmed others, Donald.” The Ghost of Christmas Past turned its infinitely sad and knowing eyes to Trump.

“Those were some very good deals,” said Trump.
 

IV.

“And now you see the ways in which your actions – your greed and your selfishness – have harmed others, Donald.” The Ghost of Christmas Present turned its wise and shining eyes to Trump.

“Those were some very good deals,” said Trump.
 

V.

Silently, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come raised its boney finger and pointed at old Trump. The grim darkness that filled its dread hood was the color of unquestionable judgment; its pitiless gaze oppressed the comfortable and comforted the oppressed.

“Those were some very good deals,” said Trump.
 

VI.

Outside it was Christmas morning. The bells of St. Patrick’s cathedral rang out their song of peace on earth, good will toward men. Trump lay abed, smart phone in his teensy weensy hands, furiously tweeting.

Ghost of Christmas Past: Very bad! No regrets! Will sue!

Ghost of Christmas Present: Failing, just like NYTimes! I will make Christmas great again! Believe me!

Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: Very unattractive! Will ignore!

Trump was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who totally died, he gave not a second thought. He stayed as fair-weather a friend, as pitiless a master, and as amoral a man, as the city which has always hated him ever knew – or any other city, town, or borough, in the world. Some people laughed to see the lack of alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them. He had no further intercourse with Spirits, because they were too busy afterward seeing to his incipient chains; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to use Christmas like the soulless, opportunistic, unrepentant huckster he truly was. May that never be said of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One.

…We’re going to need it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Good Place (S1; eps 1 & 2)


 
The Good Place: Everything is Fine & Flying (Season 1; Episodes 1 & 2)
Being a review and a wonky, lighthearted analysis of the first two episodes of Network television’s first philosophical sitcom.

"A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition, that is, it is good in itself..."
- Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals


Michael Schur is not fucking around.

In creating The Good Place, Schur - also the co-creator of Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine - has crafted the first TV comedy that's actively interested in, and engaged with, philosophy and ethics. Based on the evidence of its first two self-identified "chapters" that stuff isn't just pretentious window dressing, it's the reason for the show. In the first two chapters of The Good Place you will read or hear the names Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger, and Parfit. You will be presented with several snippets of moral thinking, and several overt, thorny, unanswered ethical questions. You will, if you're a total amateur Philosophy-skimmer like me, be really impressed by the ways that The Good Place incorporates all of this into its fabric.

...You will also laugh as you watch a panicked Ted Danson kick a dog into the sun, and then, in total kindness, offer to do it again. You will see a weirdly hilarious number of clowns. There are inexplicable giraffes, and a lot of wickedly good one-liners and gags. The Good Place is Michael Schur cashing in on success and goodwill to make something genuinely odd and personal and funny and earnest and smart and dark around the edges; there's more going on here than meets the eye, and I mean that on a couple of levels.

You can watch the first two chapters of The Good Place right now, for free, but in the event you’ve already watched it, or just don’t feel like it at the moment, here's the show in a nutshell: We join Eleanor (Kristen Bell) as she is welcomed to the good place - a purported heaven reserved exclusively for the very, very best of humanity, run by Michael, an apparent divine representative played by Ted Danson (sure, why not). It's a charmingly eccentric place that's a benign-seeming riff on The Prisoner's famous Village. In the good place you are given everything you desire, and for all intents it seems like any number of other pleasantly reassuring depictions of the afterlife (see: Defending Your Life's Judgment City). There's just one catch: Eleanor doesn't belong there. Thanks to some apparent bureaucratic screw-up, Bell's Eleanor - a terrible person - has taken the place of a woman who DOES belong there. Understandably unwilling to call attention to this mistake given what she learns about the place where she’s supposed to have gone, Eleanor sets out to stay in the good place by attempting to become a "good" person. Hilarity, and a heaping helping of intriguing ambiguity, swiftly follow.

What does it mean to be "good"? Is "goodness" defined by the actions we perform? By what we say? By the thoughts we have? Is "goodness" something we can learn? Something we can fake? Does the alignment of "good" thought and "good" action matter? If you perform good acts for bad reasons, does that matter? Bad acts for good reasons?

These sorts of questions are at the heart of The Good Place, and to the show's immense credit, the answers to those questions do not appear clear-cut in any way, shape, or form. That's where the philosophy and ethics come in. Chidi, Eleanor's roommate/purported soulmate in the good place, is an ethics professor. It's through him that the thinkers I've listed above are introduced.
 
 
 
 
Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which rears its head more than once, is a historically-seismic work of moral philosophy, with its goal being the development of a clearer understanding of moral understanding. Kant advances several general principles, including the idea that actions may be considered “moral” only when they are “pure,” motivated by “duty,” and unmotivated by reasons such as greed, self-aggrandizement, or desire, and that an action’s morality should be judged by the motive of the actor, and not by the result of the action (an assertion that, interestingly, would seem to be entirely contrary to the good place’s moral “scoring system”). Kant asserts that moral “law” must consist of a general formula that can be applied in any situation, exclusive of specific circumstances, and regardless of consequences. This idea of a “moral formula” is reinforced by another of the philosophers who are namechecked on the show.

That would be Derek Parfit, a living, modern-day philosopher similarly concerned with morality. Parfit initially found Kant irritating, and felt that the Kantian idea of autonomy was overvalued, but as he grew older he came to believe that “Kant was the greatest moral philosopher since the ancient Greeks.” He also felt that the clash of ideas between Kantians, with their absolute emphasis on “duty” and disregard of consequence, the Consequentialists, with their absolute emphasis on bringing about as much exterior “good” as possible and disregard of “duty” (which is, on the surface, the moral position of Ted Danson’s Michael and the good place), and the Contractualists, with their absolute belief in consent – absolute principles to which no one could reasonably object. Parfit’s recent book, On What Matters, postulates that there are “true answers to moral questions, just as there are to mathematical ones. Humans can perceive these truths, through a combination of intuition and critical reasoning, but they remain true whether humans perceive them or not.” Parfit’s book is, essentially, an attempt to find the point of union between the three moral camps I’ve just (badly) described, to “prove” that morality matters objectively, beyond subjective motivators and human desires.

John Stuart Mill also seems to get a shout-out, with the word "utilitarianism" scrawled on Chidi's blackboard. Mill’s Utilitarianism is an essay written to advance another moral theory: that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to product the reverse of happiness.” Mill’s assertion that happiness (basically, pleasure, without pain) is the only basis of morality, runs counter to the assertions of Kant and Parfit, and underlines just how difficult it is to arrive at any sort of objective moral consensus.

…And Aristotle is Aristotle, man. As Eleanor quips, inanely, but also not-incorrectly, "he's the best one" (Aristotle’s name derives from the Greek word “Aristoteles,” which translated to “the best purpose,” or “the best aim”). Famously the teacher of Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s work in the field of ethics involved the practical, as opposed to the theoretical – on “becoming” good and “doing” good, as opposed to  “knowing” good for its own sake. He asserted that acting in accordance with one’s own nature, and realizing one’s own full potential, will result in doing good and feeling contentment. As with Mill, Aristotle asserted that happiness was the ultimate goal, with self-realization, awareness of your own nature, and the realization of your potential, was the best way to achieve that goal. 
 
 
 
The inclusion of these philosophers firmly reinforce The Good Place’s chief thematic concerns. The seeming outlier in this assortment of dead, old, brainy dudes is Martin Heidegger, whose On the Way to Language is concerned with the origins, nature, and significance of language (what he calls “the house of Being”) and communication, and with how language acts as signs and symbols that convey (or don't convey) agreed-upon meaning. There is of course a moral dimension to Heidegger’s book, but it’s inclusion is also an iiiiiinteresting choice from a narrative POV. After all, when Bell introduces a seemingly-new "language" into the good place - namely selfish behavior and negative words - she alters the good place's very fabric. She changes its signs and symbols, and with it, the good place’s "meaning." And about that "meaning"...

 
"What happens in the other place? ...Don’t worry about it!"
-Michael


The Good Place is very charming, and clever-funny. It's also positively terrifying. Lurking among the show's brightly cheerful setting and numerous frozen yogurt kiosks is a monstrous fact, casually and pointedly glossed over: you and I and everyone we know do not "deserve" to go to the good place. We're all headed for the other place, like it or not - because you don't just have to be a good person to live in the good place, you have to be a FANTASTIC person (according to very specific criteria). To enter the good place, your actions on earth need to have promoted a maximal amount of external good in the world around you. Fall short, and you’re headed to The Bad Place.

The Bad Place - impliedly hell, though I wonder - isn't just a place where awful, unrepentant people go to suffer for their sins. It's the place where 90-something percent of everyone goes when they die (to suffer in awful ways, if you believe the brief "audio clip" that Janet, the show's sentient Siri equivalent, plays for us. I don't know that I do). That's horrifying. It damns nearly all of us. Did you spend your life contributing indelibly to mankind's knowledge of the universe? Good for you! You're headed to The Bad Place! Were you the founder of modern nursing, thus saving the lives of countless generations? Off to The Bad Place with you (literally – we’re told that Florence Nightingale didn’t make the cut, though “it was very close”)! Was your life spent being nice and thoughtful toward your fellow human beings, praying every day, and tithing on Sundays? Tough shit! You're still headed to The Bad Place!

Meanwhile, a small sliver of humanity is flying, and eating anything they want, and living in individually-designed homes, with access to anything that they desire, 24 hours a day, fully aware that everyone who didn't donate both their kidneys to a total stranger is suffering horribly for all eternity.

...Does that sound like a "Good Place"? Because I wonder.

In between the shiny facades and the quirky, smiling faces and the neato activities (whee! Flying!) there is real ambiguity to the "goodness" of the good place, and the show hints at that fact in ways both large and small. There is, of course, the ethical monstrousness of sending billions of people to a literal and/or figurative lake of fire for having scored a B+ or lower on an undisclosed "goodness" exam they never knew they were taking (and the ways in which that monstrousness dovetails neatly into the ways in which world religions teach analogous doctrines has the potential to really rile up the one million moms crowd).
 
 
 
There's also the fact that in the good place everyone's soul mate is their apparent opposite (so far, at least). Kristen Bell's Eleanor is unethical and immoral; her soulmate, Chidi, is an ethics professor. Eleanor's neighbor, Tahani, is a gabby, humblebragging socialite; her soulmate, Jianyu, is a silent monk. Even the "fun guys" that Bell meets in the good place are visual opposites - one is a buttoned-down preppy-type, the other looks like a burly, bearded outdoorsman. It's too early in the show's run to make any pronouncements, but this arrangement, and the way it's being played, suggest that soulmates in the good place are perhaps selected in order to help teach people something about themselves and potentially make them better people. Here's the question: If they've made it into heaven, why are they being "improved" further, and in ways which appear to target their specific foibles? Maybe that's what heaven is, in The Good Place - a place where we continue to improve and learn from those who are different from us. That's a really sweet thought, actually. But it also helps to highlight a fundamentally important question: Are the people in the good place really "good" people?

It's hard to say because, like, what IS "good" anyway, maaaaan? Schur's show makes it clear that the sky-high standard for admittance into the good place is good ACTION; Ted Danson's Michael explains it as the sum of the actions a person takes that then have positive effects on the world at large. But good ACTION doesn't necessarily = good person, as philosophers, ethicists, and religious types have long observed. Many traditions maintain that good action without good thought is flawed. Some, like certain sects of Christianity, argue that actions are essentially meaningless from a salvation standpoint, and that your only guarantee of same is to adopt Jesus into your heart - an exercise in valuing their version of "good thought" to the total exclusion of good action.

It's also hard to say because all we've seen so far of the people residing in the good place are the faces they've presented IN the good place. They certainly seem like good people. We're told they're good people. However, we don't know how Chidi or Tahani lived their lives on earth, and it's very possible that when we get glimpses of their past we're going to discover that things in the good place are much less straightforward than initially presented. When Eleanor receives a handwritten note at the end of chapter two, we're clearly meant to think that the message "you don't belong here" means what she think it means – namely, that it was intended for her. But again, I wonder. Is Eleanor the only one in the good place “by mistake”? The only one hiding who she “really” is?
 
…Sure it is.
It's too soon to know where Schur's show is going with any of this. It is very possible that I have drastically overthought a half-hour NBC sitcom, and that the rules for this world simply are what they are, decided on for entirely comedic/different reasons - but I don't think that's what's happening here. After all, this is a show from the man who seeded an episode of Parks and Recreation with subtle references to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The first two "chapters" of The Good Place suggest that what we're seeing is a purposeful attempt to grapple with what being "good" means/should mean; with ethics and morality and life itself. With good jokes. And big heart.

That's wonderful.

What happens, do you think, when an ethics professor examines the ethics of a purposefully exclusionary afterlife? What happens when these people start to examine where they are, who they are, and why they were picked? I've got some theories (some very specific, very interesting theories), but I'll wait to share those in more detail as the show develops. As for what happens when a smart, big-hearted network TV comedy engages with difficult, slippery ethical/moral/philosophical questions? I have no real idea - but I can't wait to find out.

PS: all hail Doug Forcett!