Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for the final season of “The Good Place.” It does not, however, contain any spoilers for the afterlife.
What’s your idea of hell? Being caught in a Sisyphean cycle of inconclusive elections, perhaps? Nothing but reruns of Donald Trump rallies on TV? Or maybe your personal version of eternal damnation involves something far crueler and more psychologically damaging: Friday night dinner with your parents seven days a week, say.
Whether hell is, as Jean-Paul Sartre famously asserted, “other people,” or whether George Bernard Shaw got it right when he said that “Hell is a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself,” the idea that posthumous punishment awaits miscreants has fascinated and terrified humans for millennia – just as it has served the nefarious purposes of priests, prophets and oppressors.
Not all representations of the netherworld (be it Hades, Gehenna, or Naraka) are as nihilistic as “No Exit” or as fatalistic as Kit Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” however.
Indeed, the Faust story, which originated in Germany centuries before Marlowe’s play, has inspired new versions ever since: “Damn Yankees,” a 1955 Broadway musical and subsequent movie, relocated the story to the World Series, while Randy Newman’s 1995 rock opera “Faust” (starring, among others, Elton John and Linda Ronstadt) was hailed as a sardonic retelling of a famously laughless tale.
The challenge facing any writer when dealing with the afterlife is to present an accessible depiction that does not rely on the clichés that have plagued the genre. Fire and torture are such hackneyed depictions of hell that they have lost their power. Even Woody Allen was guilty of this in “Deconstructing Harry,” when a trip to hell was used to shoehorn gags about the NRA and televangelists.
Even worse are some of the recent television shows in which the Devil himself is the breakout star. “Lucifer,” for example, sees Satan relocated to Los Angeles as a nightclub owner who, in his spare time, helps the LAPD solve crimes.
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Bucking this satanic trend, however, is “The Good Place,” the 53rd and final episode of which aired last week. Fittingly for a show about the afterlife, and in which humans are eventually given the power to bring their existences to an end, “The Good Place” reached the end of its life before it became boring or a burden.
Created by Michael Schur (“Saturday Night Live,” “The Office” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), NBC’s “The Good Place” was one of the most original, funny, and whimsical shows of all time. At a time when post-apocalyptic fiction is barely distinguishable from the nightly news, “The Good Place” offered an obstinately upbeat take on human nature and, ultimately, found a way to deliver salvation.
Over the course of four seasons, the human protagonists of “The Good Place” discover that the afterlife to which they have been sent is not, as they were first told, paradise. Rather, in a Sartrean twist, they are in hell, and their role is to torture each other for all eternity – a plan devised by Michael, a Bad Place architect.
Eventually, the four damned humans, along with Michael, come to understand that the system for determining who gets into The Good Place is so skewed toward damnation for everybody that it has been centuries since anyone has been dispatched anywhere but The Bad Place.
The genius of “The Good Place” was its ability to deliver a consistently high number of successful jokes while exploring complex issues of ethics and philosophy. The creators managed to come up with funny lines for characters discussing Philippa Foot’s trolley problem and turned an Introduction to Philosophy course into a laugh-aloud sitcom.
Eschewing the cynicism of “Seinfeld” and other sitcoms of the past 20 years, “The Good Place” allowed for plenty of growth and learning. In fact, the whole show as predicated on that very idea. The four characters we meet in Season 1 exemplify the show’s overriding message: that people are fundamentally good and can improve.
Most importantly, “The Good Place” was never preachy or overly didactic. A viewer who only knows Heidegger as the “boozy beggar” from the Monty Python song and who doesn’t know Plato from Pluto will find “The Good Place” as entertaining as a philosophy major. There are jokes for everyone, from highbrow quips about the nature of perfection (“Any place or thing in the universe can be up to 104 percent perfect. That’s how you got Beyoncé”) to fart jokes.There’s also the running gag about how no one can swear in The Good Place, leading to Eleanor’s occasional expletives of “Forking shirtballs!”
Aided by a cohort of directors and writers, Schur managed to keep “The Good Place” fresh for four seasons. By bringing in new creative forces, he ensured that the consistently fine performances of the stars were given the best possible material.
The standout performance was given by Ted Danson as Michael, the demon in search of redemption. As his character evolved – yes, in Schur’s universe, even Bad Place architects can find salvation – Danson’s performance became increasingly nuanced.
Kristen Bell’s performance as Eleanor captured, initially, the moral vacuity of her character and, in later episodes, the sharp intelligence with which she tackled each new obstacle. Similarly, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, and D’Arcy Carden are all excellent.
Ahead of the broadcast of the final season of “The Good Place,” Schur said that “the spine” of the entire show was Tim Scanlon’s hugely influential 1998 book “What We Owe to Each Other.” It is referenced frequently throughout the show and the final season plays like a dramatic exploration of the book. After producing one of the most original, entertaining and challenging shows of recent times – and, almost as importantly, bringing it to a timely end – Schur owes us nothing.