Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Elanor (Kristen Bell), “soulmates” in NBC’s The Good Place (Image Source: Vulture)
Alright, after yesterday’s start in the 1990s before heading back to the 1690s, it’s time we head back to the present, also known as “The Dumpster Fire That Started in 2016 But Has Not Been Extinguished Yet”, or 2017 for short. I was talking to my friend Kiki a few hours ago (at this point, Kiki needs to be recognized for not just continually encouraging me to blog, but also providing me with topical material on which to do so), and we formed an instantaneous, mutual admiration society for The Good Place, the Kristen Bell-Ted Danson comedy that premiered on NBC last fall. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch the entire first season here. One of the things I like about the show is how it readily and repeatedly dismantles the idea of soulmates (along with a ton of other things, but this isn’t a spoiler post, so moving on…). When I think about it, some of the shows I’ve enjoyed the most in the past year, such as Insecure and Master of None, have done similarly. Maybe Millennials and Gen Exers are just over it?
La La Land is one of a slew of new romantic dramedies to critically examine (or gleefully trash) the idea of the soul mate. With most rom-coms now living on television, we’re seeing the rise of series that skewer our insatiable search for a Heavenly match, from NBC’s The Good Place to the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to Netflix’s Master of None. After decades of rom-coms pushing the idea that our love lives are controlled by destiny, that a singular person completes us, it seems we’re in the throes of a soul mate backlash. And that makes sense, when you consider our rising cultural fatigue with dating apps, and dating in general. One can only go on so many soul-crushing dates before you start to question the premise of Sleepless in Seattle. But how did we get to the point where the notion of soul mates became a joke?
Long before Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks found each other, the idea of the soul mate had its origins in ancient Greece. In Plato’s Symposium, the playwright Aristophanes suggests humans were originally born with four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces — but as punishment for their arrogance, Zeus split these early humans in two, damning us to spend our lives searching for our other half. When we do finally find our mate, the story goes, “the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy and one will not be out of the other’s sight.”
And yet, the practical goal of finding “the one” is a modern one, as Master of None’s Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg explain in their 2015 book Modern Romance. “A century ago people would find a decent person who lived in their neighborhood. Their families would meet and, after they decided neither party seemed like a murderer, the couple would get married and have a kid, all by the time they were twenty-two,” they write. “Today people spend years of their lives on a quest to find the perfect person, a soul mate.”
The NBC comedy The Good Place offers a more pointed parody of soul mates. In the pilot, Ted Danson’s godlike architect introduces Eleanor Shellstrop, a newly deceased sales rep from Arizona played by Kristen Bell, to a utopian afterlife in which every resident finds their one true soul mate. “That’s right — soul mates are real!” Danson’s chipper character tells her. “Welcome to eternal happiness.” Eleanor soon meets her celestial match, a Senegalese moral philosopher — and the soul mates almost instantly begin torturing each other with their earthbound anxieties and jealousies, proving the whole conceit to be a romantic farce.
The Good Place’s creator, Michael Schur (who also created Parks and Rec), suggests this is so ripe for parody because it’s something we want so badly. It’s “sort of the central dream of our human existence, that there is a person floating around somewhere who will fulfill you in every magical way and make you feel whole,” Schur told me in an email. “I get it, though. Existence can be alienating and lonely, being (as we are) trapped inside our own brains, so it’s only natural we would both individually and collectively believe in the idea that there is a kind of missing puzzle piece out there somewhere.” Or as Moira Weigel, author of the book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating suggested of the trend, “Parody is a strategy to acknowledge and disavow a desire at the same time.”
Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Rachel (Noel Wells) in Netflix’s Master of None. (Image Source: Salon/Netflix)
So here’s the thing: I don’t believe in soulmates. I wanted to, back around the time I was rocking a yellow puffy coat and listening to Puff Daddy and Mase (augh, I will NOT be dragged back into the late 90s again, so help me blog!), but even then, I knew it was just too… unreal. I wasn’t half a person before I married K; no I was one whole hot mess of an entire one. And to his credit, he married and has stayed with me anyway. Fate didn’t bring us together, but love (and some stubborness) has kept us this way.
Know what’s far more amazing than soulmates? I’ll let St. Augustine take it from here:
You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care, and yet for all as for each individual.
An exclusive, made-for-me, all-encompassing love is available to all, and without the risk of major foot injury by way of shards of glass slipper, too. After all, God IS love.