It’s rare that a mainstream sitcom has a character dealing with mental illness that doesn’t irritate the living hell out of me. It’s also rare that any media ever represents philosophy without irritating the living hell out of me, but The Good Place is magic and it does both of these things. Since I’m so often pointing out ways that media fails people with mental illnesses, I thought that for today’s post I’d focus on how The Good Place has done mental illness right and what other shows can learn from it.
Note: I will be spoiling up through Season 2, Episode 11.
The main person that I want to focus on in The Good Place is Chidi, however there are a few other individuals who can be read with a mental illness or neurodivergent lens and I’d like to address them at the end.
Chidi is not introduced as a mentally ill character. He is actually introduced as someone we could reasonably assume is supposed to be in The Good Place. He’s relatively in control, he’s quite intelligent, he’s a good person. We fall the fuck in love with him. He’s supposed to be our main character’s soulmate, and we view him as too good for her.
I highly appreciate this because when you first meet someone with mental illness you don’t know that they’re mentally ill. Typically we mask. We don’t disclose until we trust other people or until we have to. I love that just as in real life, we get to know Chidi just as a person, not as the token anxious person, but as a person like any other.
Only over time do we notice this anxiety that he’s holding in all the time, that he’s constantly worried and fearful, that he can’t make decisions. We start to become irritated with him, why does he behave this way, why is he so frustrating? Because we haven’t been told what it’s like inside for him, we judge (although of course Chidi is charming and kind, so we don’t judge too harshly).
But then we start to see the ways that anxiety can hurt people, the downsides of Chidi’s anxiety. We see the episode where he hurts his friend over a pair of boots, and how he can’t be counted on to be the best man at his friend’s wedding because the anxiety is overwhelming and the pressure gets to him. We see how his anxiety damages him and others, even as he’s trying so hard to be a good person.
This is one of the most realistic ways that I have ever seen anxiety portrayed. Your understanding of it and of the person who has it grows over time, and sometimes you see the positive elements and sometimes you see the negative elements. Sometimes you feel like you understand, or like they’re just like anyone else, and other times you wonder what the hell they’re doing.
But through it all, The Good Place also shows the way anxiety makes chidi thoughtful and exacting, the way he works so hard, and how he can be an amazing friend, mentor, and teacher when he learns to manage the anxiety.
And then after two season of SHOWING us Chidi, and letting us get to know him the way you would an actual human, only THEN does he open up and tell us with amazing vulnerability what it feels like for him. Because when we’re mentally ill we don’t just spill it everywhere to everyone, we wait until it’s impacted something and we feel like we need to explain and backtrack. And he does it so perfectly.
In Season 2, Episode 10, when Eleanor reveals her feelings about him, Chidi explains that his brain is the sound that a fork makes when it gets stuck in the food disposal. His brain is constantly hitting that grinding moment that is irritating and overwhelming and doesn’t go anywhere. Because we know Chidi and care about him, we’re open to hearing this explanation, and it snaps so many things into place.
I’m so glad that with the latest episode Chidi was judged on his anxiety again, and found wanting, because as an audience member I got so angry. I was on Chidi’s side because I knew who he was, and how he was still a good person despite the times anxiety got the better of him. I wanted the judge to understand him and be on his side the way I was. THAT feeling is how I know The Good Place got it right, because I love Chidi with his full history as someone who deals with anxiety. I want to hold him responsible for when it screws things up, but I get that it’s part of him and even a lovable part. I understand that when he cares too much it’s not always a bad thing. It feels so good to see someone like me on screen.