In her 1991 book, Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism, the author Alice Walker offered a simple explanation for why she continued to believe in the human capacity for change even as untold harm is wrought all around her:
Whenever I experience evil, and it is not, unfortunately uncommon to experience it in these times, my deepest feeling is disappointment. I have learned to accept the fact that we risk disappointment, disillusionment, even despair, every time we act … Every time we decide to trust others to be as noble as we think they are. And that there might be years during which our grief is equal to, or even greater than, our hope. The alternative, however, not to act, and therefore to miss experiencing other people at their best, reaching out toward their fullness, has never appealed to me.
Walker’s nearly 30-year-old text, like much of her work, is a balm. It doesn’t present a blindly idealistic vision of what humanity can achieve, and how we can relate to one another, so much as it suggests that the process of becoming better—whatever that might mean—is one that requires diligent work. And that labor itself is valuable even, and perhaps especially, when it feels most futile.
This principle undergirds the entire premise of NBC’s The Good Place, which returned for its third season Thursday night. The Michael Schur sitcom, which fuses workplace comedy with high-brow philosophical lessons and giggle-worthy visual gags, follows four deceased humans as they navigate what they first think is The Good Place, an otherworldly realm meant as a stand-in for heaven. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) are an eclectic group of screwups who all enter the afterlife somehow both loathsome and endearing in their own unique ways. As Michael, their all-knowing guide to the good place, Ted Danson offers an impossibly charming foil. His afterlife assistant, the nonhuman and nonrobot Janet (D’Arcy Carden), can give the dead crew any answer they need—except the shortcut to becoming good people.