On ‘The Good Place,’ Chidi Redefines the Black Nerd

The New York Times Entertainment 1 month ago

William Jackson Harper is nervous. He and I have been on the phone for five minutes, and he’s walking around his living room as we speak, analyzing everything he’s saying and hoping he hasn’t said anything stupid. I can relate.

“Are you pacing right now?” I asked. “Because I pace all the time.”

“Yeah, I’m pacing,” he said. “I am.”

As a self-described neurotic, he takes his nervousness as a given. Later, he tells me about how hard it is to make dinner plans. He and his girlfriend have talked about it. How there’s something about making the plans in advance that fills him with dread. As he shares all this and more, I can tell he’s smart. Funny. A little awkward. These qualities and idiosyncrasies are just some of what he brings to one of the best roles on television. They’re also qualities people probably see when they say to me, “You’re such a Chidi.”

Harper, 39, plays the eternally indecisive professor Chidi Anagonye on NBC’s “The Good Place.” The fervently celebrated sitcom, which begins its fourth and final season on Thursday, makes a heady, candy-chili stew out of deeply surreal comedy and profound, often heartbreaking explorations of morality. Chidi, more than his fellow humans and the extra-dimensional beings in their orbit, is the philosophical heart of the show.

He’s also a huge nerd. He’s scholarly, prone to stomach aches brought on by intense anxiety, and he can talk at length about Kantian ethics.

Chidi is the sort of character who, in past generations, might have been the butt of the joke more often than not. Instead, he’s a romantic lead on one of television’s most beloved shows. (It probably helps that he is, as Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop once said, “surprisingly jacked.”) For a viewer like me, who grew up being compared to characters like Steve Urkel, the ubernerd portrayed by Jaleel White on the ’90s sitcom “Family Matters,” he summons a welcome, if skewed, sense of recognition.

People tell me not that I’m just like Chidi, but that I am Chidi. I’ve heard this throughout the four-year run of “The Good Place.” People tell me in person, on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve heard it from loved ones, from white friends, from friends of color. My initial reaction was a kind of amused befuddlement — my stomach is pretty solid, for instance. Friends say it’s in the way I talk and reason. That I’m kind, if prone to anxiety. (Their words, I promise.)

So watching Chidi is like looking at my affable yet vexed reflection. But more broadly, that reflection, for me, shows how much more space there is for a wider range of black performances in mainstream entertainment. There are many more complex characters of color now, characters freer to express themselves in more layered, nuanced ways.

Harper said that Chidi is him “on steroids.” That, even if Chidi is a heightened character conceived by the show’s creator, Mike Schur, and writers, Harper’s nervous inner monologue still comes through in many ways. Chidi, then, becomes a way for a certain stripe of black nerd to be seen a bit more clearly. And I do feel seen. It’s exciting, unnerving even. It’s as if, in his being called up to center stage, I can feel that tug, too.

When asked, Harper describes himself as a nerd. He claims he can go down rabbit holes with the things he is passionate about: He loves tabletop board games like The Settlers of Catan and Pandemic; he really likes indie rock and Steely Dan. None of these things would necessarily get you banished from the cool kids’ table at school. It’s just that, once upon a time, if you were a young black man who was into things that weren’t stereotypically associated with blackness, you were confined to a small box in the minds of others. With that confinement came alienation.

“I definitely got the Carlton thing,” Harper said, referring to Carlton Banks, the affluent dweeb played by Alfonso Ribeiro on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” (So did I.) “I was into a lot of stuff that a lot of little white kids were into. I definitely caught some grief for that coming up.”

“That certainly hasn’t changed since I’ve gotten older,” he added. “I think now I’m less self-conscious about it.”

Nerds in the collective imagination tend to be coded as white. Consider Urkel, who “was really adhering to all of the stereotypes that were already in place for white nerds in culture” like Woody Allen, Groucho Marx and Harold Lloyd, said David Gillota, the author of “Ethnic Humor in Multiethnic America.” “Steve Urkel was just kind of following that model of nerdiness that was already recognizable.”

Which is not to diminish Jaleel White or Alfonso Ribeiro. But good work has been done over the past few decades to complicate what it means to be black in media and what that experience ought to entail. The past 10 years alone have exploded ideas of what’s possible for black men on-screen: Think the code-switching comedic personas of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. The understated brilliance of Sam Richardson as Richard Splett in “Veep.” The thwarted genius of Donald Glover’s Earn in “Atlanta.”

All of these characters are unique but speak to a broadening notion of acceptable black masculinity in the mainstream. Chidi Anagonye is on the vanguard of that shift. Megan Amram, a writer-producer on the show, told me that he represents something audiences may not have seen before. “The Good Place” was written to capture the experiences of people all over the world. With Chidi, who is Nigerian-Senegalese, viewers get to watch an African man who is “sweet and fun and funny and flirty and also neurotic and informed and scared all the time,” Amram said. And Harper, in pouring himself into the role, makes him un-missable.

“This character,” she said, “which we try our best to write, he imbued with so much pathos and realism, and I think that’s why people respond so well to him.”

“I feel like there’s a lot of people like us,” Harper told me. But until fairly recently, there wasn’t much space on TV for someone like him, “a black dude who is neurotic and uncomfortable with a lot of situations and tends to pace when he’s talking on the phone.”

From left, DeRon Horton, Justin Simien and Logan Browning on the set of Netflix’s “Dear White People.”

Justin Simien, the creator of the Netflix series “Dear White People,” said he loves Chidi because he’s complicated. “He gets mad, he has flaws, he’s really smart, but that can be a problem,” he said. “He’s more of a human being than the black nerds of the past have been able to be.”

Simien appreciates the need for expanding expectations. Both versions of “Dear White People” — his 2014 indie film and the series — feature smart, quirky black women and men looking to be more fully themselves. There’s the “Star Trek”-loving handsome face here, and the gay, socially awkward journalist there. Their experiences come from a real place, borne out of Simien’s need to see his own queer, black nerdiness validated in art.

“Maybe there’s not a perfect you or me or whoever out there,” he said, “but there are more, certainly more than when we were coming up. And I think the kids who are watching this stuff now, maybe they’ll have a little more confidence. Like, Lil Nas X, for me, is great, man. He is what I think I want to see more of in the world of people who never doubt who they are.”

There’s a double-edged sword to all of this, Simien added. In creating stories that make you and others even slightly more visible, you see how invisible you were before.

“It’s a reminder of how little of you they can actually see,” he said.

That said, it feels good to hear that I am Chidi, even if I feel some small twinge of resignation. The work is never done, but at least there’s more of a framework.

When I asked Harper about what Chidi might mean to people, he was philosophical. For him, Chidi’s existence is a cautionary tale. He did die because he was too indecisive to find a place to go for a drink, after all. If “The Good Place” is about figuring out how to be a better person, he thinks you ought to strive to be better than Chidi.

“Hopefully people see Chidi in themselves and then seek to improve those things that locked Chidi up and also locks them up,” he said. “I hope his legacy is just ‘Don’t let this happen to you.’”

Still, he has his own relationship with Chidi, and knowing that people identify with the kind, nerdy, funny and cripplingly tentative character he plays on TV means something. He feels seen, too.

“I just feel less lonely knowing that people have those sorts of feelings, thoughts, emotions,” he said. “Just knowing that you’re not the only one is, it’s beautiful. It’s really great.”

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