An Arizona dirtbag was officially welcomed into the LGBTQ club on Monday. The Good Place star William Jackson Harper confirmed that Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is “super bisexual” in an interview with the U.K.’s Metro newspaper. Harper, who plays Eleanor’s quasi-soulmate, praised the show for not focusing “on one aspect of a person’s character.”
“One of the things I think the show does well…is the fact that Eleanor is super bisexual and it’s not something that we just focus on,” he explained.
“[I]t’s not a thing that is harped on,” Harper added. “It’s just who she is.”
The news that The Good Place’s resident “total smokeshow” bats for both teams is likely to be greeted with mixtures of tearful elation and exclamations of “no shirt!” by its near-cultish fanbase. This writer counts himself a member: If you aren’t already tuning in, the Mike Schur-produced afterlife comedy is one for the ages. Now in its third season, the show is a thoughtful exploration of what makes us human, as well as a joyfully absurdist farce with breakneck pacing.
There are a frankly daunting number of things to praise about The Good Place, but one of the best is the surprisingly light touch it takes when handling Eleanor’s sexuality.
The character’s bisexuality was presented as something of an Easter Egg at first, one of The Good Place’s many gifts for viewers who watch closely. After she is mowed down by a stack of shopping carts on earth, Eleanor is assigned to a planned community in heaven, where she meets its director (Ted Danson) and a crew of other recent departees, including dumb-smart street dancer Jason (Manny Jacinto) and indecisive ethics professor Chidi (Harper). Eleanor quickly develops a barbed flirtationship with her neighbor, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a self-obsessed socialite who humblebrags that she was Taylor Swift’s best friend but Taylor Swift was not her best friend.
The two are drawn to each other — and yet also want to rip the other’s hair out — because each is everything the other is not. Tahani is a tall, wealthy Brit with “legs for days” (the latter Eleanor’s observation), and her petite, blond counterpart once sold fake medicine to the elderly before accidentally scoring a ticket to Heaven.
Her very, very thinly veiled attraction to Tahani was slowly revealed through a series of increasingly elaborate come-ons, as if Eleanor was discovering the depth of her feelings along with the audience. In the series’ third episode, she goes on a rant about Tahani being a “perfect princess” before the tirade is derailed by a breathy appreciation of her neighbor’s “cappuccino skin.” “Now I’m complimenting her and kind of turned on,” Eleanor concludes.
Rather than burning off this one-liner as a throwaway gag, The Good Place commits to the bit. One of the show’s funniest moments in a series overflowing with them is when Janet (D’Arcy Carden) — part humanoid Alexa, part deity — reveals in the Season 2 episode “Derek” that Eleanor’s ideal boyfriend would be “Stone Cold Steve Austin’s head on Tahani’s body.”
That description became a meme on The Good Place’s extremely active subreddit, but it’s the punchline that truly hits the mark. Without missing a beat, Eleanor responds, “Or vice versa.”
What the episode’s writer, Cord Jefferson, does so smartly is use this off-kilter information in the service of building character — with a keen sense of detail the series has always excelled at. It further establishes everything fans know about who Eleanor is and what she likes: WWE wrestling and Tahani’s curves.
Eleanor’s somewhat surreal sexual tastes are more than one of the series’ best running jokes — a gag which culminates in a brief afterlife simulation where the two are paired as soulmates. By going back to this well so often (and often it does), The Good Place raises the character’s sexuality to the level of canon. Queerness is often treated by TV showrunners as a teasing bit of subtext to throw in for ratings (e.g., Supernatural, Rizzoli & Isles), but here, sexuality is the text. It would be impossible to understand her relationship to Tahani without the knowledge that Eleanor is “super bisexual,” as Harper put it.
While The Good Place has yet to label Eleanor’s bisexuality so bluntly, it doesn’t really need to. Her sexual orientation is just a fact at this point — one no different than her undying love of shrimp or fanatical hatred of clowns.
As an ardent defender of labeling, this writer understands that having fictional characters name their identities can provide crucially important visibility in a landscape where LGBTQ people have few opportunities to see themselves depicted in media. When Rebecca Bunch’s boss, Darryl (Pete Gardner), came out in the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the show used it as a chance to bust pervasive myths about bisexuality — complete with a Huey Lewis-inspired musical number. “It’s not a phase,” Darryl sings. “I’m not confused, not indecisive — I don’t have the ‘gotta choose’ blues.”
But what was arguably just as powerful was a scene in the CW musical-comedy’s third season, in which the show fast-forwards six months to find the previously heterosexual Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) suddenly in a relationship with a female caterer (Emma Willmann). The audience skips past the teachable moment. By the time the narrative picks up, their romance is accepted by the other characters as old news.
The transcendent nonchalantness with which Eleanor and Valencia are treated is extremely refreshing at a time when LGBTQ characters are often presented with two options. They must either perform their identities constantly or bury any hint of their sexuality so deeply that it might as well not exist.
A notable example of the former is Pete Davidson’s Gay Best Friend character in the otherwise great Netflix romcom Set It Up. Duncan, the roommate of eternally put-upon personal assistant, Charlie (Glen Powell), is always reminding the audience that he likes dudes, just in case they might have forgotten since his last line of dialogue. On the other end of the spectrum, the Harry Potter and Star Wars series have made retconning queerness into a cottage industry — from gay-but-not-that-gay Dumbledore to Luke “Whatever You Want Him to Be” Skywalker.
Tokenization is bad because LGBTQ identities shouldn’t be made into props, but it is also bad because it is lazy writing that doesn’t reflect how queer people speak or behave. The latter is actually worse, though. It gives creators a pass to retroactively applaud themselves for work they didn’t actually do.
This is perhaps where The Good Place has fallen slightly short of its sky-high potential. While the show has stayed true to its lead’s low-key sexual orientation by not forcing her to become a programmable coming-out robot, it also hasn’t yet allowed Eleanor to act on her attraction to women in any meaningful way. All of her relationships have been with men. In addition to Chidi and (in a profound lapse of judgment) Jason, she’s briefly paired with a would-be soulmate with 6,000-pack abs (Chris Baker). Seen in flashbacks, there’s also Samuel (Drew Brooks), who Eleanor dumps for being a better person than she is.
In the Metro interview, Harper confirmed that an Eleanor-Tahani romance is not out of bounds. He described the premise of having a same-sex couple in the world of The Good Place as “kind of interesting.”
That possibility is more than interesting. After three seasons of laying the groundwork through lovingly painstaking character development, allowing TV’s resident trashbag and its most prolific name-dropper to finally get together would be a confirmation of everything that makes The Good Place great.