One of the best shows of the last few years comes to a close and I can’t avoid talking about it.
SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free for Season 4)
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) was an Arizona trashbag who died looking for Margarita Mix. She found herself in The Good Place, a heaven-like neighborhood that is designed by Architect Michael (Ted Danson) and maintained by Sentient Omniscient AI Janet (D’Arcy “Please answer my e-mails” Carden). Eleanor is paired up with her soul-mate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) and introduced to neighbors Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela “SHE DID ANSWER MY TWEET” Jamil) and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). Eleanor quickly realizes that she is not the person that was supposed to get into the Good Place and that she is really bound for the Bad Place. She asks Chidi, a moral philosophy professor, to help her become a better person. After she is on her way, she learns that Jianyu is really Jason Mendoza, who is a Jacksonville trashbag, and encourages him to join her. They’re soon joined by Tahani, only for them to find out that the Good Place is actually The Bad Place, designed by Michael to torture the four humans.
Michael erases their memories and tries to torture them again, only for them to beat him… several hundred more times. Finally realizing that the system is fundamentally flawed because the humans are actually becoming better people, Michael and Janet join forces with the four humans against Michael’s former boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson). After meeting with Gen, the Ultimate Judge of the Universe (Maya Rudolph), the four humans get another chance on Earth to prove that they can become better people. This ends up failing, partially due to demon intervention, so Michael, Janet, and the humans become fugitives until they convince the Judge to let them build another Good Place to prove that the system that judges good and bad is broken. Then Season 4 happens and I don’t want to tell you what happens because you should watch it.
I’ve cried at three television finales in my life that I can remember. The first was Scrubs, because it was beautiful and touching. The second was Frasier, but only when I watched Kelsey Grammer recite Ulysses by Tennyson while I was in a hospital bed next to a plaque my father gave me bearing the same poem. This was the third and it was completely different than the other two. Scrubs ended with a touching moment where the main character saw all of the guests from the show’s run and then witnessed a scene of all of the cast getting their happy endings. It’s celebratory and self-congratulatory, but also emotional. Frasier’s end was touching to me, but similarly filled with patting itself on the back. This show’s end was more like Breaking Bad, pushing to the very end and winding up in the exact spot that, in retrospect, it had to end. Almost anything other than the ending we got would have felt like a cheat. It’s not revelatory nor self-congratulatory, it’s just the last step on the journey.
The thing that I loved about The Good Place was that it was always about the possibilities of the future and the reality that things can get better. People can get better. Almost anyone can get better if you can find a way to really connect with them and find a moment where the unfairness of the world isn’t present. The show essentially took the position that humans are mostly good, something that seems bold nowadays, when we are constantly bombarded with shows that say otherwise. Moreover, the show told us that goodness does not need to be inherent, but can instead be taught through effort and study. It also supposed that the thing which could most compel us to better ourselves was our interactions and connections with others. Again, in a world where dividing lines are constantly being drawn and redrawn, this always struck me as a bold stance.
The show also spent long periods lecturing about various philosophical principles and schools of thought, usually through Chidi having to explain them to the other characters. They spent an episode on Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem, episodes on the concepts of Existentialism and Free Will, and essentially the entire series on the Paradox of Heaven and Hell. You could probably do an entire dissertation solely on the name drops in this show and how Tahani’s use of them for status is similar to Chidi’s use of them for credibility and authority. Seriously, the number of philosophers that are discussed or referenced in this series is astounding, although I admit that it has a bit of a Western bent to it (Chidi loves Sartre, so that tracks).
While all of this would normally make a show unbelievably dull or preachy, the series managed to make it work through a combination of spectacular writing and amazing interplay between the cast. All of them have defined character arcs, although Janet’s is a little less distinct by virtue of her omniscience and immortality. All of their personalities are simultaneously exaggerated and also relatable, although, again, Janet’s is a little harder to relate to until she develops more human issues. This allows all of the show’s clever lines and emotional scenes to work as well as they did. Also, let’s be honest, everyone on the show is super attractive and that didn’t hurt things at all.
I loved this show, largely for the fact that it was willing to try to tell everyone that humanity isn’t doomed, because we can always get better. It might end up being wrong, but I think they really had a point and I wish everyone would sit through this series, at least once.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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