Watching the End Times from the Good Place

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“Welcome! Everything is fine.” This bright green text appears to float in midair as it greets humans upon their awakening in the afterlife’s waiting room. The exclamation point seems a tad overeager, whereas the period’s affect falls short of convincing. But soon the deceased—and the show’s viewers—are told that they have arrived in the Good Place. The eponymous sitcom debuted in fall 2016 amid the most drawn-out, polarizing, and toxic US presidential election in living memory. But everything, polling data reassured us at the time, would be fine.

I became addicted to this program around the same time that I noticed an uptick in myself and my friends referring to our contemporary moment as “end times.” I soon came to think of The Good Place as television’s response to our cultural—and planetary—existential crisis.

While The Good Place generally avoided overt political references, its four-year run coincided with the apparent end—at least to left-leaning viewers—of civilization, the environment, and broadcast television. By the time the series concluded, in January 2020, I had spent the previous month watching viral videos of koalas rescued from the latest “extinction event,” the Australian wildfires. The day after The Good Place’s finale, the UK Brexited, and the US Senate voted to block any witness testimony in its trial to impeach President Trump. The series had the good sense to bow out just before the first 2020 US Democratic presidential primary. In yet another end times plot twist, I received edits for this piece just as the anxieties and realities of the COVID-19 pandemic hit a fever pitch in the United States.

Even the seemingly omniscient Good Place couldn’t foresee all of this “bullshirt.” (Profanity is censored there.) But the show’s philosophy of social bonds as stays against human extinction may be what gets us through the present and near future.

At its core, The Good Place can be understood as a sitcom about moral philosophy and (to reference one of its most persistent citations) “what we owe to each other.” Its recognition of the inevitability of compromises and the complexity of social ties exists in tension with the universe of moral absolutes in which it is set: you’re sent to either the Good Place or the Bad Place, based on a point system that evaluates every action a person performs on earth.

The series explicitly recognizes the impossibility of living a truly ethical life amid the moral ambiguity and unintended consequences of navigating the modern world. Nonetheless, it presents us with characters who strive to become better people and to serve their community, even as it becomes clear that the system is rigged. At the same time, the show manages to imagine that we do and will continue to have free will. Ultimately, The Good Place believes that our actions matter and that we have responsibilities to others, even if it’s too late to save ourselves.


Note: This article contains a major first-season spoiler and minor late-season spoilers.

 

In the pilot we are told that the architect of the afterlife, Michael (Ted Danson), has designed a planned community for a new cohort of the most morally upstanding deceased. Incongruously, this ensemble includes misanthropic Arizona “trash bag” Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who was sent to the Good Place by accident after having been mistaken for a righteous person with the same name. Eleanor was intended for the Bad Place, in which her personal hell would have played out like so: “Every day was basically one endless baby shower for a woman I didn’t know but also somehow I had to organize it,” and every night involved improv comedy.

Eleanor’s assigned soulmate is the indecisive moral philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and her neighbors are the vainglorious socialite do-gooder Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and the silent Buddhist monk Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). Jianyu’s arrival in the Good Place, it turns out, was another mistake; rather than a paragon of spirituality, he’s actually a “pre-successful” EDM DJ from Jacksonville named Jason Mendoza and the personification of a “Florida Man” headline.

Making everything in the Good Place possible is Janet (D’Arcy Carden, a comic treasure), an anthropomorphized vessel of all the knowledge in the universe who can answer any question and manifest every wish instantaneously. In an episode wherein Michael instructs her to be more relatable, Janet tries out ill-suited colloquialisms and flirtations, as well as a number of “fun fact” conversation starters. Toying with the physics of the series’ universe, in later episodes Janet hides the human characters inside her void, an offline white expanse of nothingness that exists outside time and space.

Janet tries to be relatable.

The first half of season 1 establishes the series’ premise and develops its characters with insight and wit, and also with wry comments on human nature’s penchant for mediocrity. When Eleanor asks Michael why there are so many frozen yogurt places instead of ice cream shops in the Good Place, Michael explains, “There’s something so human about taking something great and ruining it a little so you can have more of it.”

The series’ true genius kicks in mid-season, when it begins to introduce plot twists and reboots that change the very logic of the show’s narrative world. Whenever the series begins to feel like it has run out of ideas, it pivots and pranks the viewers. Both the narrative and the characters engage in reinvention, from Jason and Janet’s marriage (“There is nothing in my protocol that specifically barred that from happening, so I agreed,” she cheerfully explains) to Michael’s midlife crisis (when he gets a tattoo of a Chinese character that means “Japanese”).

Michael’s demonic smile upon the big reveal.

The first-season finale, “Michael’s Gambit,” offers the series’ big reveal: Eleanor figures out that Michael is actually a demon and that the characters have been part of a sadistic experiment to innovate the Bad Place. The four leads have been brought together to torture each other, literalizing the adage “hell is other people.” Also, in hell, all pizzas have Hawaiian toppings.

This astounding twist undoes everything we believed we knew, yet, upon rewatching the first season, one finds clues from the beginning suggesting that this revelation was inevitable. In the pilot, Eleanor asks Chidi to teach her philosophy so that she can earn her spot in the Good Place: “Let me be your ethical guinea pig.” As it turns out, this is what all four characters have been in Michael’s sadistic experiment.


The reveal that what looked like the Good Place was, in fact, hell shouldn’t surprise us. In fact, this development has astounding relevance in the US (or the UK, or Brazil, or the Philippines, or India—take your pick) since 2016. We have all been in hell, torturing each other, this whole time. We have been led to believe that we exist in a prosperous democracy, yet this has been revealed as a maddening ruse that counters what we thought to be true.

As the news media perpetuate politicians’ counterfactual claims and a barrage of retrogressive policies disorients and grinds us down, this series feels like a new comic spin on magical realism. Like Leslie Knope, from Parks and Recreation (creator Michael Schur’s previous series), The Good Place remains optimistic that if the characters just work hard enough at being ethical, good will win out. In our current moment, that hope seems to be what marks this series as fantasy.

At its beginning, the series focuses on the deaths of individuals. By the fourth and final season, the series expands its worldview so that it’s the entirety of humanity that faces extinction. This seems to track with human progress over the past four years. Indeed, 2019 was the year that my climate crisis depression superseded my political depression. Within weeks of the series finale, the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread grew exponentially, along with its attendant worldwide mortality, grieving, shortages of medical equipment, household hoarding, social isolation, economic precarity, and a sickening feeling that daily life would be irreversibly changed ever after.

Responding to the quagmire that humans have wrought, the supreme arbiter of all things in The Good Place’s universe, Judge Gen (named after Hydrogen, all that existed when she came into being, and played by Maya Rudolph) decrees, “Earth is canceled.” As far as the Judge is concerned, the planet’s only redeeming quality is its many bingeable TV shows.

Judge Gen decides the fate of humanity

As a series on NBC, The Good Place has also self-reflexively commented on transitions in television form and platforms that coincided with its run. At 13 episodes per season, compared to the more traditional 20-plus, the show signals the broadcast network’s embrace of the shorter “quality TV” seasons that have historically been the domain of premium cable and British television. (Sending up the format, Tahani introduces Eleanor to a fictitious British series by noting, “It ran for 16 seasons on the BBC, and they did nearly 30 episodes.”) Departing from traditional network-sitcom narrative structures, in which a given episode ends with its conflicts tidily resolved, The Good Place works to induce binge-viewing, as episodes consistently build to cliffhangers during the end credits before abruptly cutting us off.

Given its middling ratings, The Good Place has almost assuredly been watched more as a streaming series via Hulu and Netflix than as a traditional broadcast one on NBC. In other words, this is an NBC show that both reflects and contributes to network television’s obsolescence. And lest we forget, energy-intensive streaming has an enormous carbon footprint that exacerbates the climate crisis yet continues to accelerate as a mode of viewing.

Janet simulates human emotion. The closed captioning could synopsize all of human experience for the past four years.

A humane show about torture, The Good Place is at once clever and thoughtful. As a vision of the apocalypse, it is relentlessly sunny, like Southern California with the haze removed by CGI. When despair has felt like the only reasonable response to our world, I have cathected to The Good Place because it allows me to imagine that most people are fundamentally good and that it is possible to become better.

Yet the series understands that imperfection—even the imperfection of heaven itself—is inevitable. I can think of no other rapid-fire comedy that would make time for the line “mortality offers meaning to the events of our lives, and morality helps us navigate that meaning” in its finale—and then have its characters debate the claim’s nuances. The series finale managed the feat of making numerous series callbacks and offering closure, by exploring the panic and grief of loss, while also allowing the characters to know when their own time was up. Characters articulate both that “everybody needs a teacher” and that there is “nothing more human” than not knowing. The finale made me sob more than once, yet it also made me feel at peace with letting go.

 

This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler. icon

Featured image: Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto, and Jameela Jamil in The Good Place (2016). IMDb

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