Lady robots. Androids. AI. Replicants. Whatever you want to call them, they’re female-coded—that is, they are played by actresses, but having been programmed instead of born most don’t technically have a biological sex—and not human. They may or may not have souls.
The concept of artificial intelligence and inorganic “life” is a fascinating one presenting an infinite range of possibilities. Tangible considering the rapid and ever-growing developments in machine learning, but still presenting creators freedom to do whatever the hell they want due to the beautiful thing that is artistic license, it’s a creative goldmine. Or at least, it should be.
Because in practice things have gone a little differently. While male-coded AIs have explored a relatively wide range of concepts and characterizations, from A.I.: Artifical Intelligence to The Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Prometheus, their more feminine counterparts, despite ultimately presenting the same range of possibilities, have played out in a depressingly reductive way.
Basically, the story goes that in 1927 Fritz Lang’s Metropolis introduced the diabolical sexbot android Maria, impressed a lot of people, and it’s been a parade of sexbots ever since. Or you could look 110 years earlier and point the finger at E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” and the automaton Olimpia, but either way, the trend started in Germany and hasn’t let up since.
Sometimes they’re femme fatales, sometimes damsels in distress, sometimes chimeric hybrids of both. But when it comes to lady AIs who serve a larger role than being a fancier version of Siri or Alexa (e.g. FRIDAY and Karen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), it’s been sexbots all the way: disembodied sexbots (Her), holographic sexbots (Blade Runner 2049), Oscar-nominated sexbots (Ex Machina), Emmy-winning sexbots (Westworld).
Look, I’m not saying that the sexbot trope is inherently a deal-breaker or evil or anti-feminist. After all, I listed some pretty iconic titles right there and some of them relay the message that sexbots are people too. What I’m saying is that choosing to repeatedly explore the same path when presented with practically infinite possibilities is both boring and sad. It’s like going to a frozen yogurt place with every conceivable flavor in the universe and never even trying an option other than vanilla.
Which brings us to Michael Schur’s hilarious love letter to humanity’s flaws that is The Good Place and the wonderful Janet (D’Arcy Carden). Hailed by Vanity Fair as “the glue that holds together The Good Place,” Janet is, in her own words, “not a robot,” “not a girl,” and absolutely the best. The Good Place would fall apart without her—quite literally, as explored in a season 1 plotline. She’s a supercomputer, a database of all the knowledge in the universe, and quite outspoken regarding fashion advice for someone who dresses like a ’70s flight attendant.
Note that Janet does have a sexuality, it’s just not her defining feature. Instead of the tired tropes of the scary-seductive sexbot or the downtrodden-abused sexbot, Janet’s ability to feel romantic/sexual desire manifests in the form of a rebooting glitch resulting in a deep-seated and laser-focused passion for the chronically incompetent Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). Through incredibly clever handling, The Good Place takes one of the most stereotyped characters—the female AI—and one of television’s most overdone plot devices—the love triangle—and combines them into something wonderfully new and different.
In the forest that is the endless possibilities presented by AI characters, Janet represents a road less traveled by, and to paraphrase Robert Frost, it has made all the difference. The concept of AI is both alluring and frightening, so it’s hardly surprising that so many narratives go in the quite obvious direction that is the sexbot. The Good Place doesn’t ignore the power of AI or the possibility of things going wrong, it just doesn’t present those concerns as a non-human seductress that will kill you. Such characters are “enigmatic” in the sense that they are individually mysterious and unknowable, but it is the particular flavor of femme fatale enigmatic that hasn’t really been new or different since film noir ran rampant in the 1940s and ’50s.
Janet represents a genuine enigma, a character unlike any other found on television right now, capable of being incredibly relatable in one moment and inconceivably alien in the next or vice-versa—for example, having a very relatable, human-sounding motive lke “I need to spend some time alone and focus on myself” for an extremely non-human action (“time alone” means temporarily disappearing to her “boundless void”).
Sometimes Janet reminds you of yourself, sometimes she reminds you of your smartphone, and yet through the magic of good writing and D’Arcy Carden’s show-stealing performance her character feels convincingly coherent throughout it all, even when she’s showing off her walkie-talkie feature or being used as a tracking device. It’s like having a very weird friend—you care about Janet and there’s a sense in which you feel like you know her, but part of knowing her is knowing that she will do strange and unpredictable things.
The Good Place has built a well-deserved reputation for its fast-moving, twist-filled plot, unlike anything found in any other cable sitcom. Whether causing unexpected complications—nearly causing an accidental apocalypse by trying to ignore her jealousy over Jason’s relationship with glamorous socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil)—or saving the day when the gang have backed themselves in an impossibly tight corner—convincingly impersonating a “Bad Janet” and rescuing Michael (Ted Danson) from the clutches of his evil boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson)—Janet’s unpredictable weirdness enables The Good Place to be equally unpredictable and weird, in the all the best ways.
It’s a pretty good time for TV, and there are plenty of great shows with interesting human characters out there. But just like Daenerys’s dragons provide a unique selling point for Game of Thrones, The Good Place is the only show out there with a Janet, and if you don’t get why that’s easily on par with giant flying fire lizards, it’s only because you haven’t seen the show yet.