NBC's clever sitcom depicts multiple natural, character-driven interracial relationships.
In Michael Schur's sitcom The Good Place, much attention has been given to two of the leads: Kristen Bell as Eleanor, a bad person who somehow ends up in what she thinks is Heaven, and Ted Danson as Michael, the "architect" of her afterlife neighborhood. Danson's performance deserves the hype, but I don't tune in for him.
The reason I watch is because the show revolves around people of color and their romantic entanglements. These complex depictions are very important in a world where interracial relationships are still taboo. Although I benefit from passing privilege, that has not shielded me from dealing with people commenting and critiquing my own interracial relationship. I appreciate The Good Place, because by putting real interracial relationships on the screen, it's helping normalize them in real life.
Everyone in the titular Good Place has a soulmate. Eleanor quickly learns that hers is Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), a Nigerian ethics professor. When he learns that Eleanor spent her life on Earth as a depraved and narcissistic sociopath, Chidi decides to teach her how to be a good person, which results in their relationship slowly blossoming. Next door lives Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a Pakistani-born, London-raised daughter of aristocrats who dedicated her life to raising money for charity. Her soulmate is supposed to be a Taiwanese monk who took a vow of silence named Jianyu (Manny Jacinto)—but it turns out he's a fake. In reality, he's Jason Mendoza, a Florida-based amateur DJ.
Early on, there's a joke about how a drunk Eleanor can't say Chidi's name correctly—the look on his face says that it's a tiresome and irritating routine. The joke is rooted in how inconsiderate Eleanor is, not that Chidi's African name is "strange." And that's just about as in-depth as the show goes into addressing the character's racial backgrounds.
The Good Place, which was renewed for a second season just yesterday, doesn't praise itself for being brave enough to have a white woman fall in love with an African man, or for depicting a British Pakistani woman try desperately to get her believed soulmate to talk to her. Their relationships aren't presented as out of the ordinary. The Good Place doesn't self-righteously pretend it's the first television show in history to explore interracial romance. The characters don't bring up one another's racial backgrounds (except when Eleanor is trying to remember what country Chidi was born in), which allows the characters to develop naturally, without being pigeonholed by racial cliches.
By almost never addressing race, the show normalizes the fact that diversity is a part of life. In the afterlife—just as on Earth—there will be people of color. They exist, and they are just as capable of falling in love as white people. And by presenting these relationships so simply, so matter-of-factly, The Good Place reinforces how commonplace interracial relationships are.
Of course, the interracial relationships that The Good Place rely on are the natural result of casting a diverse group of actors. Scrolling through Manny Jacinto's Twitter account, you'll see fans praise the fact that a show featuring a Filipino actor who doesn't indulge in any of the stereotypes about Asian men that are so common to Western media. With diverse casting, The Good Place hammers home the point that representation matters. Until very recently, I thought the only South Asian celebrities working in America were Michelle Branch (she's a quarter Indonesian) and Mindy Kaling. Now I see two of them—in prominent romantic roles, no less!—in the same show; Indian actress Tiya Sircar eventually joins the cast as a second Eleanor, complicating original Eleanor's relationship with Chidi.
It is admittedly sad to still get so excited about this small step up in diversity on television, but this excitement is the result of years of frustration—of always being forced to relate my struggles back to white women who look nothing like me. There is no denying that it feels good, even in small doses, to see myself and other women of color reflected in the media—to see that our presence in the world is normal, that we are not outliers in our own culture.
The Good Place doesn't necessarily deserve a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum. Diversity should be a no-brainer. And yet, here we are, expressing disbelief that in 2017, it's a show about dead people that can seamlessly pull off racial diversity without white people—either the characters or the creators—taking all the credit for being so open-minded. As happy as I am that a show like The Good Place is on the air, it's very existence tells me how easy it would be for so many other shows to air the same content, but out of laziness or fear of low ratings, they choose not to.
All you have to do is allow people of color on the screen. Give them space to be selfish, confused, indecisive, in love—just regular human occurrences. What makes The Good Place work is that it doesn't get trapped by its politics. There are no sanctimonious plotlines about how accepting Michael is, or how progressive Eleanor must be. In the reality of The Good Place, diversity and acceptance are already the norm. There's no need to explain it.
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