by Akshata Atre
Illustration by Akshata Atre
I’m not the first person to point this out, but TV nowadays is trying to get us to become better people. And perhaps no two shows make this goal more explicit than The Good Place and Russian Doll.
(WARNING: spoilers ahead.)
Let’s begin with Mike Schur’s The Good Place, which started airing in 2016. The show starts out in what appears to be heaven: a European-style main street filled to the brim with frozen yogurt shops and friendly neighbors. The whole scene is saturated with bright colors and every element of a “picturesque” town. The 4 main characters easily accept this new setting as the Good Place, their new home in the afterlife. And why wouldn’t they? The whole place screams “good.”
That the Good Place seems good is, of course, the intention: the architect-demon Michael has constructed the whole place to make the humans think they’re in heaven. They are, in fact, in hell. And when the humans eventually figure this out and are rebooted over and over again, they end up in a neighborhood that looks almost exactly the same as the first one, but with different shops and signs. And in this lovely, colorful, idyllic setting, they learn to become better people over and over again.
Netflix’s Russian Doll, on the other hand, has a darker aesthetic. Our heroine, Nadia Vulvokov, dies every night and wakes up in the same dimly lit bathroom with a glowing blue crystal behind her. In her quest to figure out what’s happening to her, she traverses the streets of Manhattan at night, her face lit by the orange glow of streetlamps or the fluorescent lights in the corner store. Even in moments of clarity, there is a dark tinge to every setting she (and eventually her companion Alan) occupy.
Yet, despite these strong aesthetic contrasts, both shows come to the same conclusion: hell is other people, but what we owe to each other makes us good and keeps us going. And I’m not sure that one show presents that message more powerfully than the other. I had the same feeling of empowerment watching the humans of The Good Place try to save the world in Neighborhood 1358W as I did while watching Nadia march through the streets of New York carrying a torch, Alan by her side. Packaged either as technicolor fantasy or grungy reality, the undercurrent of what it means to be human remains the same. And no matter what your aesthetic is, you can learn how to be a better person. If that seems daunting, don’t worry. Mike Schur and Natasha Lyonne make sure you can still laugh while doing so.