Ending in a mediocre place

Mar 14, 2020 | Culture, TV and Movies

It’s possible that The Good Place is one of the only shows in recent years to address such a difficult task as answering the question “What happens after we die?” with nuance, humor, and just the right degree of optimism.

The show, a very in-character comedy for creator Michael Schur, features four humans who arrive in a heaven-like afterlife and must navigate various struggles, ranging from a feeling of not belonging to a complete overhaul of the afterlife system. 

Now, to be clear, I love many characteristics of this NBC show (available for streaming on Netflix). For a basic overview of ethics, it’s pretty simple and doesn’t do terribly (except for a truly heinous explanation of free will that boils down to “doing irrational things means we have free will,” which is just an awful argument). 

As a show with nuanced characters, distinct growth, and a sense of humor about itself, it’s very successful, though it can sometimes get bogged down in trying to seem relatable for younger people—or, more accurately, in trying to seem relatable to Gen-Zers by way of millennial humor, which is at best endearing and at worst downright robotic.

Season four ended well, but I had a strange feeling of emptiness while it was over. Usually shows that end well make me happy, if nostalgic—one good but predictable example, perhaps, is The Office, whose heinous ninth season had a far better ending than its beginning and middle.

The Good Place, another Schur production like The Office, delivers in terms of its dry humor and mild political bent, but its lack of philosophical rigor—or even accuracy—and its attempt at meme-making disadvantaged the show that started out heartfelt and original.

Instead of returning to what was loved in the earlier seasons—its sarcastic-but-optimistic tone and its complex villains—The Good Place not only lost its feeling of authenticity, but also the feeling of real stakes for the characters. At the same time as its ending was sweet and reassuring for the afterlife justice system it portrayed, the bittersweet nature of the show was lost in various parts of the final season. Fortunately, the last episode executed its goals well: resolving the afterlife problem and the characters’ respective relationships. 

Perhaps it isn’t the way the show executes its ending so much as the nature of its premise. Just as its initial question—“What happens after you die?”—is almost an impossible premise to work off, the same ambiguity exists for the ending of The Good Place. What happens after the afterlife?