It’s hard to believe we were introduced to the magic of “The Good Place” only a year and a half ago. The NBC comedy premiered in September 2016 and has since aired two seasons, both of which received excellent reviews and critical acclaim. And for a fucking good reason. It introduced us to Jameela Jamil, the show’s true breakout star. It’s even harder to believe this is Jamil’s first acting gig. She used to be a radio host and television presenter.
She shares screen space with comedy geniuses like Ted Danson (“Cheers”) and Kristen Bell (“Veronica Mars”). The show is created by Michael Schur, who gifted us gems like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” Plus, it’s had a slew of A+ guest stars like Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph, Jason Mantzoukas, and Maribeth Monroe. Yet, Jamil manages to slay in every scene, deliver every witty dialogue with equal parts elegance and nonchalant humor as a British-Pakistani philanthropist, Tahani Al-Jamil. We rarely see characters of South Asian descent be portrayed as wealthy, stunning humans who debate their morality.
The basic concept of “The Good Place” is unique but simple enough at the start. We first meet Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell) who dies and goes to heaven aka the good place, where she meets the creator of her utopian neighborhood Michael (Ted Danson). This place, which is full of frozen yogurt stores and lush parks, accepts only the best of humanity. There’s even an artificial being, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), to help humans adjust to life after death. Since she was a real lousy person when alive, Eleanor realizes she’s here by some error. To avoid facing literal hellfire, she learns how to be a good and moral person in secret from ethics professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), who also happens to be her soulmate. Yes, in heaven, everyone is assigned their true soulmate.
Tahani is Eleanor’s rich, snobby neighbor who is really prolific at throwing lavish parties even after death. The two don’t quite get along at the beginning because Tahani’s flawless British accent, extremely polite nature, and tall figure makes her seem suspicious. She constantly name-drops all her celebrity friends; her godmothers were Princess Diana and Maggie Smith, she’s dated Leonardo DiCaprio, she was once Baz Luhrmann’s muse, she’s Taylor Swift’s best friend but Taylor Swift isn’t hers, Malala Yousafzai wrote the foreword for her…diary. Despite all this, Tahani is in the good place because she spent most of her life raising millions for different charities.
Her soulmate is a silent Buddhist monk named Jian Yu (Manny Jacinto). She craves to have intelligent conversations with him about art and history but unfortunately, all he does is smiles and nods. It turns out that like Eleanor, Jian Yu was also brought to the good place by mistake. In reality, he’s Jason Mendoza, a good for nothing chump from Jacksonville, Florida, who, to be blunt, is just an average dumb hottie.
Initially, Tahani seems superficial on the surface because while her companions are struggling with serious ethical dilemmas, she is busy soaking in all the benefits of being in the good place, whether its her grandiose mansion or her endless access to a spa. Her complex layers start to show when she learns her new friend and her soulmate are both lying to her. There is even a glimpse of loneliness when Jason ends up marrying Janet. Luckily, she overcomes all this when she realizes that finally, she has friends in this afterlife whom she can be her real self with even if it took a while to get there.
In flashbacks of her life, we see that even though Tahani spent her life trying to be an upstanding citizen, she never received love from her parents, Manisha (Anna Khaja) and Waqas Al-Jamil (Ajay Mehta). They always openly preferred her younger sister Kamilah (Rebecca Hazlewood) and no matter how much Tahani did, they would always compare her to her sibling. This is not uncommon in a desi family. It led to a deep-rooted jealousy and frustration in Tahani, which is why she always tries to one-up everyone she meets.
There is something so relatable about what she is going through, especially because in some form or the other, most South Asian kids experience something similar with their families. Yet, Tahani’s character isn’t defined at all by her ethnicity and culture. It plays an important part of her life, sure, but Tahani’s character is about how she takes all of her built up stress and tries to unburden herself from it. It’s about how she learns to love herself instead of constantly seeking it from others. This unfolds more in season 2.
At the end of its first season, “The Good Place” took everything we knew about it and tossed it aside. It turns out that our core four – Tahani, Eleanor, Chidi, Jason – are actually in the bad place. Michael isn’t the angelic helper he pretended to be but is, in fact, the demonic mind behind this entire scheme. He created a fake good place in the bad place and put the humans in there so they end up torturing each other. When you rewatch the episodes with this knowledge, there are so many subtle signs but still, this twist blew everyone’s mind.
Tahani is confused. How can she be in the bad place when all she did was good for others? It’s because her motivations were always corrupt. Every good deed she did, it was to impress her parents and not because she wanted to do it. In season 2, after several failed attempts at torturing the humans in this manner, Michael ends up befriending them so they can all concoct a plan to escape to the real good place and make a case as to why they belong there. This means they all come under Chidi’s tutelage, learning how to be moral people.
For our fave human, she seeks comfort in the arms of her ex-soulmate Jason, who after all these reboots has forgotten he used to be married to Janet. Jason may be the complete opposite of everything Tahani stands for but still, he helps her open up and not be her rigid self; the person who her parents forced her to be. It’s a real growing moment for Tahani, who becomes a little more vulnerable, a little more relatable with each passing episode. It’s growth for her I didn’t expect from her but absolutely love.
Tahani’s evolution comes into play when she decides to break up with Jason because she’s realized that for now, she cannot depend on love from another person. She has to learn to accept who she is and where she can go from here, even if it means being stuck in the bad place. Luckily for her and the gang, that might not be true for long. They decide to get help from the eternel judge who solves disputes between the good and bad place. They can all make a case for how they’ve improved as people and why they shouldn’t be in hell.
The judge, Gen (Rudolph), tasks each of the four humans with their own test. For Tahani, it means passing by a long hallway with multiple doors, behind each door are people who are discussing her. Her challenge is to avoid opening any of them. She is almost successful until she reaches the last one, her parents. Despite all the progress Tahani has made, she can’t resist talking to them. She enters the room only to discover that even now, they’re still talking about Kamilah. It dawns on her that no matter what, she was never going to be enough for them. She confronts them about it, telling them about the things she’s done that they wouldn’t approve of like shagging a Floridian and munching on a Cheeto. They are visibly and audibly shocked.
Tahani is sorry they didn’t have a better relationship but at least this entire exercise has led her to one big a-ha moment: she’s enough for herself. It’s one of my favorite things about Tahani. You know, besides all her A-list friends.
I’m curious to see where Tahani’s journey goes from here. Season 2 ended on an equally powerful cliffhanger. Gen couldn’t decide what to do with the core four humans because her judgement, that they only strived to become better people to get into the good place, means that they were after a moral dessert. To see if they can be better people, like really be better people, they’re pushed back to Earth and instead of dying, they’re now alive again without the knowledge of everything they’ve been through.
This means Tahani is now back to square one. It’s a critical point for her. Will she continue in her voyage of self love? Will she continue to show us that characters of South Asian descent can be multi-dimensional people who worry about heaven vs. hell because, you know, we are taught from a young age that if you do good, you’ll be sent to heaven? Will she continue to rock her cascading hair? I’m betting on yes for all three, mainly because so far the writing is on point and because Jamil is climbing up the charts as one of the better character actresses out there.