For the past four seasons, The Good Place has been a unique delight in the world of network television. Leveraging the good will he received from a long track record writing successful, well-regarded programs, Mike Schur created a show that defies many of the conventions in form and content of modern mainstream tv comedy. Structured like a prestige drama, the show tells a complete story in 52 chapters, one that continuously builds its own complex mythology, and fundamentally reinvents the world in which the show takes place at the start of each new season, all while still delivering the goods as a funny, 22-minute comedy.
The Good Place follows its cast - four humans, a demon, and a quasi-omnipotent being - as they navigate the afterlife and innumerable after-lifetimes, as they try to answer the question of whether or not people can overcome their nature to become morally better, and how we find meaning in the face of both mortality and immortality. You know, your standard everyday sitcom fare.
Other shows have endeavored to tackle what happens after we die; other shows have tackled questions of morality and what it takes to be a good person, but none with nearly as much humor, imagination, and playfulness.
There are a number of angles one could take on describing The Good Place: its exceptional casting, its imaginative world design, how little the writers spoon-feed or talk down to their audience. However, what I find most interesting about the show is, not that the cast and writers were able to make a topic like moral philosophy funny, but that the show actually makes and explains substantive arguments for how people could become “better” and what would constitute a “well-lived life.”
The initial premise of The Good Place is: an admittedly not-great person (Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop) finds that she has died and gone to “The Good Place” due to some kind of clerical error, and the question is: can she become a sufficiently good person for real, before anyone finds out and sends her to “The Bad Place” where she belongs. The Good Place as a show, outgrows the narrowness of this premise fairly quickly and in spectacular fashion, with one of TV’s all-time great plot twists, but the core idea persists throughout the entire run of the show: can people become better, and if so, how?
Ultimately, the show argues that people can become better. So can demons. And so can quasi-omnipotent beings. For Eleanor, there is a confederate in “The Good Place” to help her: a recently deceased professor of moral philosophy (William Jackson Harper’s Chidi Anagonye). Out of pure self-interest, Eleanor begins to study moral philosophy with Chidi, but in time, she starts to absorb his lessons in a sincere way. This isn’t just a useful plot device, but part of the thesis of the show, demonstrating a fair amount of influence from Aristotle. Eleanor is motivated to develop and cultivate a more virtuous character out of self-interest, but through practice, like with any skill, those traits become ever more habitual, creating a genuine foundation of good character from which to create ever more sophisticated virtues.
What the show consistently argues is that with good intentions, through trial and error, and with the right support system, people can become more virtuous. At the end of the show, when our cast is given an opportunity to redesign the afterlife, they create a system where people get to have their character tested over and over again, until they finally can pass every test and move onto “The Good Place.” No longer is anyone considered irredeemable or deserving of eternal torture. Nobody goes to “The Bad Place” at all anymore, and eventually everyone gets to “The Good Place.”
There is a deeply humanist theme to the show that highlights the value of individuals, alongside the idea that no one is equipped to become a better person on their own. Eleanor needs Chidi in order to overcome her shortcomings, and Chidi needs Eleanor in the same way. There is an idea in the African Philosophy of Ubuntu, which can be interpreted widely, but is generally taken to be that the thing that makes us most fully human is the other people in our lives. A common way of stating this idea is that: a person is a person through other persons. Looked at in one way, this is a recognition for the need we have for teaching, and for feedback from others in order to better ourselves, but what’s also entailed by this is that we owe it to others to be that source of education and feedback. A good person is not best understood in isolation, but rather as part of a family or community working together to become better.
As a complement to the persistent theme of moral improvement running throughout the entire run of the show, we also discover in the final episodes of The Good Place that the show is an extended argument against the possibility of any kind of “Good Place” in the way that it is traditionally understood. There are any number of ways to imagine an afterlife, but one of the most common features shared by those different views is that the afterlife is eternal. The idea of an eternal afterlife is meant to offer comfort to those who have just lost a loved one, or are themselves troubled by their own mortality, but the writers of The Good Place make plain the trouble with the idea of forever: it can’t help but get boring.
If humans persist after death, but fundamentally as just eternal humans, we run into the problem of hedonic adaptation. The degree to which humans are able to enjoy things is context dependent. We enjoy things relative to our other experiences. Cake and ice cream on special occasions are a treat. Cake and ice cream for every meal would become a chore. In the afterlife described by the writers of The Good Place, everyone can get any experience they can imagine, whenever they want, as often as they want, without limit. And, when our cast encounters those people that have made it to “The Good Place,” they discover them to have largely devolved into apathetic zombies.
When finally given a chance to overhaul how “The Good Place” operates, our cast introduces the option for people to end their afterlife when they feel ready and complete. Yes, those people who have led good lives, or gone through the new system to become sufficiently virtuous to enter “The Good Place” are still offered an eternity of pleasure as a reward for their good behavior, but now they are also offered the option to stop when they’re full. The idea being, that we need endings in order to give shape and meaning to the things we do. It’s the fact that our lives and experiences end that gives them any kind of shape. This isn’t meant in a way to glorify endings themselves, but to highlight the role of endings as the necessary punctuation that concludes our experiences, for both good and ill.
This idea also translates over to Mike Schur’s decision to end the show when he did. Four seasons is a comparatively brief run for a show as popular as The Good Place, but Schur and company reached the ending they wanted, the one that best fulfilled the message of the show. To go on any further would be to risk becoming bored by their own creation, or stifling it in some way, just so that it could keep on going. Expressed sentiment by the cast and crew of The Good Place has been fairly universal that this was the best and most fulfilling job they’ve ever had, a job that no one wanted to see end, but everyone also agreed that they would rather see it end well than just peter out. I feel like they timed it perfectly.
I draw this connection between the real world and the world of the show because that’s a connection that Mike Schur would like to see drawn. The show is about the afterlife, but all of the themes it discusses are ones that can be applied in
our day to day lives. As a mission, the show takes seriously the idea that their little tv program might actually contribute to making the lives of people better, and the world a slightly better place. For most of the duration of the show, there was an episode-by-episode podcast organized by Mike Schur and hosted by cast member Mark Evan Jackson. The podcast did the regular work of breaking down the episodes, and securing interviews with cast and crew about the show, but the podcast also ended each week by asking the open ended question, “What’s Good?” The question gave people an opportunity to highlight charities and organizations that could use support, to spotlight individuals that were making useful contributions to the world, or to just take a moment to talk about some of life’s small pleasures. The point though, is that throughout the show’s conception, even extending to the podcast about the show, the idea was always being pushed that despite what contrary evidence we might see in the world around us, people are good, and if we work together we can make the world into a better place.
The Good Place was, and is, a very special show. Setting out to create a comedy that also asks questions about ethics and the meaning of life, seems like it ought to be a noble, but doomed undertaking. In my case, as well as the case of many others I am led to believe, it was a meaningful show, and I am a better person for having experienced it.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in New Windsor, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be They Might Be Giants, Barry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.