Is it possible for a TV show to make you a better person? The Good Place, an NBC sitcom from the same team as Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99, certainly tries. The high-concept comedy is completed now (completed, not canceled) after four seasons, and it’s all streaming on Netflix, so it’s time for a retrospective.
The elevator pitch for The Good Place is: What if someone got into heaven by mistake? But it’s a lot more than that. The show starts off as an intro class to ethics and philosophy, its middle section is an examination of how to apply those lessons in real life, and it ends as a meditation on the nature of death. And because it’s also entertainment, all of that is set to a hilarious single-camera sitcom beat.
Near-perfect comedy performances, a setting that allows for fresh humor and observations, and a surprisingly wholesome heart make The Good Place one of the best shows of the last 10 years. It’s also incredibly timely, though it probably wasn’t intended that way—the lessons that the characters take home are perfect applications for an increasingly angry and divided world. Missing this one would be a mortal sin.
The Bait: Trouble in Paradise
The Good Place starts off with Eleanor (Kristen Bell of Frozen and Veronica Mars) arriving in the afterlife, welcomed by not-technically-an-angel Michael (Ted Danson, Cheers). She’s told that her life of charity and humanitarianism has earned her a spot in the Good Place, an amalgamation of heavens from various religions that takes the form of an idyllic neighborhood (the often-used Little Europe lot at Universal Studios).
He tells her that, as one of the very best humans who ever lived, she’s destined to spend eternity in a perfect paradise, along with a hundred or so other wonderful people and a perfectly selected soulmate. The only problem is that the life he described her living isn’t hers: She’s an “Arizona trashbag” who spent 30 years abusing her friends and family and generally being a self-absorbed jackass. If there’s a Bad Place (and there is), she knows she should be there.
Eleanor tries to lay low in the Good Place with the help of her assigned soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper, The Electric Company, The Breaks), who was conveniently a philosophy and ethics professor in life. Chidi tries to help Eleanor change from a trashbag into a person who’s actually good enough for the Good Place before anyone finds out.
In the first season, we’re also introduced to Tahani (Jameela Jamil in her first acting role), a former British socialite, and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto, The Romeo Section), whom we’re told is a monk who observes a vow of silence even in the afterlife. In addition to Michael’s continued presence as a well-meaning but bumbling “architect” of heaven, we also spend a lot of time with Janet (D’Arcy Carden, Broad City), an almost all-powerful helper who’s halfway between the Enterprise computer and Navi from Ocarina of Time. (Eleanor calls her “Busty Alexa.”)
The first season is all about exploring both the Good Place, with its unique structure and rules, and the characters, who are unique but uniformly goofy in a way that will be familiar to fans of creator Michael Schumer. Jokes and cultural references come at a breakneck pace but help to flesh out both the characters as they are and the lives they lived before they died. Michael and Janet are consistent comedy mines, thanks to their otherworldly perspective and abilities. A sequence in which the gang must “reboot” Janet, while she insincerely pleads for her life as a humanoid “are you sure you want to?” pop-up, is one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen.
Season one ends on a shocking cliffhanger, but one that’s so well set up that eagle-eyed watchers might have already figured it out. The remainder of the series continues exploring the cosmology of the new age afterlife, as the gang tries to fix deep-seated problems with both life and death.
The Switch: There Will Be a Quiz
The initial episodes, and most of the rest of the series, are generally structured around a lesson from basic ethics and moral philosophy. The second season episode that fully explores the famous Trolley Problem, in exhaustive and gory detail, is a highlight. The lessons are basic, usually delivered by Chidi to the characters who are, to a greater or lesser degree, idiots—they’re sort of the philosophical equivalent of the old “knowing is half the battle” segments from GI Joe.
Basic as they are, these lessons help round out both the characters and the broader themes of the show: examining what makes a good person good, a bad person bad, and how to change yourself from the latter to the former. I should point out that this ongoing discussion is framed in fairly neutral terms. It’s made clear that this is about philosophy, not theology bound by any one religion or culture.
Of course, most sitcoms have something similar to this. The morality play is an ever-enduring structure, and the lessons delivered by Chidi (or sometimes spontaneously learned by Eleanor, Jianyu, Tahani, and eventually Michael), aren’t that different from, say, a closing monologue in Scrubs. But in the much more immediate context of a real (fictional) heaven and hell, they’re framed as immediate, actionable to both the characters in their current arc and the viewer in our day-to-day lives. And thanks to the limited scope—just over 50 episodes across four seasons—the characters really do apply those lessons and change from one day to the next.
It’s a fairly rare comedy that blatantly asks you to think about how its situations can be applied to your own. It’s an even rarer one that actually gets you to do it. And, in case I’m not emphasizing this enough: The Good Place manages to do this while staying consistently hilarious.
The Closer: Everybody Dies, You Know
There are a lot of twists to potentially spoil in the latter half of The Good Place, and it would be a shame to do so. But suffice it to say that the last season is less about learning the lessons of a good life than it is about accepting an inevitable death. It’s sobering and contemplative, in a way that American comedy almost never attempts.
As much as the show has avoided explicitly religious themes up to that point, it’s hard not to see season four as a modern-day attempt at a manufactured religion. The writers are almost saying, “we don’t believe in a real heaven … but if we did, this is the one we’d want, and one we think would actually work.” Which is interesting, as media that includes a fictional representation of an afterlife paradise rarely stops to consider the problems that it would create, or the solutions it would need.
The show isn’t without its low spots. As short as it is, it could stand to be shorter: I think it could have condensed the last two seasons into one without losing any punch. And as is the way of comedy, the characters eventually lean into their own personalities and one-up their quirks to the point that they border on annoying. That’s fine for the smaller parts—Maya Rudolph and Jason Mantzoukas both have memorably zany guest appearances—but can wear thin for the main cast.
The Good Place also has a bad habit of (and here I’m encroaching over the border of spoiler territory) erasing the progress that some of its characters make, in a very literal way. It’s a crutch the writers lean on more than once in order to get the plot to a specific place in the show’s very weird universe. Eventually, it’s all ironed out, as The Good Place essentially has straight-up magic, but watching characters relearn essential lessons isn’t any less tedious even when there’s a story justification for it.
That said: the ending is amazing. It’s refreshing to see a show tell its story and close out, without any desire to do more—another extreme rarity on American television of any genre. When the credits roll on the final episode, I teared up, sad that I wouldn’t get to spend any more time with these characters, but wonderfully satisfied with the time that I did.
It felt a lot like a good funeral, in a way that’s entirely intentional. The Good Place did everything it set out to do and leaves its audience better for doing so.