Favorite Fictional Charatcers, #374: Eleanor Shellstrop
Updated: Feb 20, 2022
First things first: Kristen Bell's leading lady on The Good Place is a terrible human being. She's greedy, lazy, selfish, boozy, destructive, vain, argumentative, impatient, mean, untruthful, conniving...heck, you name the character flaw, and Eleanor has it. And yet somehow, despite her laundry list of negatives, we can't help but like her, sort of a Kirsten Gillibrand in reverse. Her awfulness in life is the context for her afterlife experience in this underrated sitcom. The initial plot device is that Eleanor is a fish out of water in "the good place" and has to fool her fellow heaven-dwellers that she's qualified to be there. She winds up with an ethics teacher and a small retinue of strange pals who help her sustain the con for a bit, but that's just the start of the story. The show goes wildly and gleefully off the rails, tethered to a semblance of storytelling cohesion by Eleanor's ethical evolution and the joyous performance of Ted Danson as the afterlife architect Michael. I won't ruin the frenetic, unpredictable twists and turns for you. Suffice it to say that you shouldn't get too attached to any characters, or any apparent narrative arc. It's a bewildering exercise in free-form episodic television.
That we like and root for Eleanor Shellstrop is in no small measure due to Bell's inexhaustible sarcastic charm. She also keeps bouncing back from setbacks and obstacles - the afterlife won't even let her make use of the vulgar vernacular that is her usual language. She wants to be a better person, kind of, but has difficulty with even the vocabulary of altruism, let alone the philosophy or practice. Still, she keeps trying, and we admire her spunk and grit even as the universe seems determined to grind her down.