- NBC’s “The Good Place” series finale was a perfect end to an imperfect show.
- I’ve been dealing with depression, and its message of how we owe it to each other to try our best to be good has had a life-changing impact on how I live every day.
- The pacing of later seasons and core romance of the show stumbled a bit.
- Regardless of its imperfections, “The Good Place” had an incredible and literally life-changing message of what it means to be here on Earth.
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By the time the series finale of NBC’s “The Good Place” aired on Thursday night, I was depressed. Not in the “the last few years have been a bummer” way, or the “a show I love is ending and I’m sad” way, but in the way that has led me to weekly therapy sessions and conversations with loved ones about their experiences on various antidepressants and other medication.
In the years leading up to this period of my life, I’ve watched a lot of TV. More than the average person, I would guess. Most of it was fantasy or drama, which I’ve always loved, with bleak settings and horrible truths laid bare.
But then I found shows I started referring to as “comfort TV.” Shows like “The Great British Bake Off” or “Schitt’s Creek,” and, yes, “The Good Place.” At first, I absorbed these shows piecemeal, watching a few episodes at a time with my eyes half on an iPhone game or the endless void of Twitter.
By the end of the first season of “The Good Place,” that mode of watching changed.
The series, created by Michael Schur (“The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), started out simple enough. Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell) opens her eyes and is welcomed by a man named Michael (Ted Danson) into a bright office. She’s informed that she has died, but thanks to her an incredibly selfless life on Earth, she’s been granted eternity in an idyllic neighborhood called the Good Place.
The hiccup is that Eleanor is actually an incredibly mean and self-centered person, who knows she doesn’t actually belong there. So she needs to try to blend in. She begins learning, with the help of her assigned soulmate Chidi, how to be a good person.
But by the season one finale, Eleanor uncovers a devastating twist.
Eleanor (and her new friends, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani) weren’t in the Good Place at all. Michael is actually a demonic being from the Bad Place, and he’d been torturing them all along with a new psychological experiment.
All at once, “The Good Place” became a “phone down” series.
“The Good Place” was not only packed with references and background jokes you can’t possibly catch if you’re half-watching it, but the second season shifted into compelling TV. It wasn’t just clever and endearing and weird and fun, but also a deeper meditation on what it means to be a good person, and how and when that goodness can be rewarded.
“The Good Place” offered a lifeline to people like me who had started falling towards nihilism or were dealing with mental issues like depression (which has a clever way of convincing you to stop caring about much).
The few failings of ‘The Good Place’ were due to the high bar the show set for itself
“The Good Place” is not a perfect show.
After the seamless setup and twist of the first season, the writing team launched itself into new, thrilling heights with the season two, episode two installment, “Dance Dance Resolution.” In one short arc, the show blew through literally hundreds of Good Place reboots.
While the whole first season was one long experiment with Eleanor and the other humans in their fake Good Place neighborhood, this single episode showed Michael wiping their memories and restarting the experiment 802 times.
Other series might have spent the entire second season with just one new version of Michael’s test. But “The Good Place” threw that assumption out the window, ending this episode with our group of humans teaming up with their tormentor, the demon Michael. He realizes the experiment is a failure and needs their help covering up his mistakes.
This change-up was thrilling. It was like watching 10 episodes worth of material all in just over 20 minutes. It also might have set the bar too high, too soon.
Subsequent seasons were sometimes built around a few too many pivots. An all-mighty Judge (Maya Rudolph) was introduced. The humans were sent back to Earth, and then it turned into a cat and mouse game between the Bad Place demons and our imperfect heroes.
Along the way, Michael became friends with the humans, and Janet – the omniscient information database in the form of a human woman (D’Arcy Carden) – acquires more abilities than any other Janet ever created thanks to her many reboots.
The show started introducing problems and solutions one after the other, sometimes at the expense of character development. The Judge sets up rules for a new experiment testing the humans’ ability to improve, but then all those rules get broken. A Bad Place demon infiltrates the humans’ lives. Our protagonists realize the system is broken and set out to fix it. Hijinks ensue. Earth almost gets “canceled.”
It’s a lot for any show, but especially when it’s filtered through only a few episodes.
These ups and downs and sideways turns were a lot. And a lot of it was fun. But the arcs weren’t always as compelling as those early episodes.
I also never quite fell in step with the core romance of the series: Chidi and Eleanor. Like other critics, including Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastien (who outlined the weakness of their fictional romance here), I would have preferred Eleanor and Chidi to simply be the best of unlikely friends.
Regardless of its imperfections, ‘The Good Place’ had an incredible and literally life-changing message of what it means to be here on Earth
One thing about “The Good Place” will never cease to amaze me – that Michael Schur, after the success of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn 99,” was given the opportunity to pitch virtually any show he wanted, and he chose this. A network comedy show carefully built up over a four-season arc which posits a simple truth: We owe it to each other, all of our fellow beings on this planet, to try our best to be good.
“The Good Place” was a weekly reminder that there is goodness in all of us, even when it isn’t readily available at the surface of our emotions. Even when we’re hurting, and want to hurt back. Even when we feel nothing, and our minds have convinced us that to continue feeling nothing would be great, actually.
This show also managed to never feel preachy about its message. The writers couched all the potentially saccharine or sanctimonious dialogue in their believably earnest characters. The sweet came with plenty of bitter. Lofty philosophical ideals came with jokes about penis-flatteners and reminders that Eleanor Shellstrop is a “legit snack.”
The message contained in the last two seasons of “The Good Place,” in particular, was that humans inherently cannot be perfect during their time on Earth. It’s all too messy. We are each bound to screw up one moral choice or the other, no matter how we try to lessen our carbon footprint or support local businesses or donate to a worthy cause or vote for the right candidate.
But we can try.
Every one of us is capable of self-improvement. We make our lives better, and the lives of those we love better, by trying every day to be the best versions of ourselves there are.
We won’t succeed every day. I don’t. I doubt most people do. We’re all selfish “benches” (the show was hilariously good at coming up with alternate “swear” words for its literally heaven-sent cast) or Arizona trash bags sometimes.
That’s why the imperfections of “The Good Place” don’t bother me all that much. It feels almost more natural that the show, which joked that “pobody’s nerfect” on its first season, will have faults of its own. But I’m so very glad it tried, and believe the lasting effects of this message by showrunner Michael Schur will far outlast any gripes people may have.
The series finale was a perfect goodbye to an imperfect show
I sat down to write most of this before I had seen the series finale. In a way, I didn’t need to know anything more than what was told to me by the time the extra-long final episode aired. Like the characters on the show, I knew what was next, and spent the week leading up to it trying to make my peace.
But that soul-bruising, starlight of a finale was everything I needed and more. The four humans, now living out hundreds of lifetimes (or Jeremy Bearimies, as “The Good Place” concept of time is called), one-by-one realized their time in existence was coming to an end. They leave on their terms, each passing through a gateway built in the middle of a redwood forest and dissolving into small beads of light and energy that filtered back into the universe.
Janet and Michael, our two non-human heroes, each get their own slice of new life. Michael is sent to Earth to finally live as a real, fallible person. Janet, the most intelligent and powerful nonhuman in existence, shows her most-human self yet when she tearfully says her goodbyes to Eleanor. Then our beloved heroine walks through the gate.
One of Eleanor’s little beads of light travels back to Earth, and settles on the shoulder of a man who tosses some misdelivered mail into the trash (a classic former-dirtbag Eleanor move). But her little light seemingly inspires him to pull the envelope out of the trash and walk it over to the right building.
It’s a letter for Michael. He’s overjoyed. Unfolding the paper, we see a rewards card for Coyote Joe’s Marketplace.
Michael, still giddy over the experiences of mundane humanity, earnestly thanks the stranger. Which is how, beyond all logic, I was left silently crying, tears streaming down my cheeks, as Michael uttered the ridiculous and moving final line of the series – “I’ll say this to you, my friend, with all the love in my heart, and all the wisdom of the universe: Take it sleazy.”
As a fan, I am left grappling with what I can take away from this wonderful show
Now I grieve for the loss of that little weekly light this show gave me. It’s not that I can’t, or won’t, carry on without it. But it almost feels like my training wheels are off. Instead of pondering between episodes or seasons what new and inspiring moral twist lays ahead, I have the path clearly there: Wake up. Recognize how I’m feeling, be that depressed or optimistic or tired or fine or frustrated … and try anyways. Try to be good.
It’s what I owe to myself, and, as Chidi Anagonye once said, “what we owe to each other.”
Those words first came from American philosopher T. M. Scanlon. His ideas about moral contractualism were filtered through Michael Schur and his writing team and then spoken by actor William Jackson Harper as he played the character of Chidi.
On the series finale, Eleanor is the one who cites Scanlon as she tearfully accepts that she needs to let Chidi go. He was ready to end his existence before she was, and the many Jeremy Bearimies she’d spent with her philosophical studies had prepared her to do the right thing when it was most important.
And now, like Eleanor, I will carry those philosophical teachings with me, a little talisman to cling to on the dark days. “The Good Place” created an idea of the afterlife I want to believe is real, and it also showed me the very real way I can live here on Earth with more optimism and integrity. Even in the face of depression. Even when it feels like more than I’m capable of.
It’s doubtful I’m alone in this. Millions of people, many of them who might not have realized they needed this life-raft of optimism in the form of a doofy NBC sitcom about an Arizona trash bag and her friends and a demon, now know more about moral philosophy and ethics than we probably ever would have in our life.
“The Good Place” was never about perfection. And we’re all better for it.