The Good Place, which wraps up its fourth and final season on Thursday 30th January, graced our screens at the perfect time. First airing on NBC in September 2016, the Michael Schur-created comedy about the afterlife straddled the election of Donald Trump. When protagonist Eleanor (Kristen Bell) realized that the titular Good Place was, in fact, the Bad Place two days before the president’s inauguration, The Good Place seemed to capture many people’s dread at the state of the world.
Up until about the end of season three, The Good Place’s ragtag bunch of miscreants tried to figure out what it meant to be a good person by learning from each other. Eleanor tried to be worthy of her admission to The Good Place by unlearning her selfishness. Chidi (William Jackson Harper), as Eleanor’s goodness mentor, gained patience with her, Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto). Demon-cum-Good Place creator Michael (Ted Danson), felt love for the aforementioned miscreants he was sent to torture and formed the opinion that maybe humans aren’t that bad after all.
A Zero-Sum Game
But season three’s winter finale in December 2018 led to the discovery that The Good Place wasn’t engineered to make people better — it was actually designed for failure. The crew comes to the realization that no one has been admitted to The Good Place for 521 years, not even posterboy Doug, who lived a life filled only with righteousness, proving that individual choices alone aren’t going to change the hellscape that is Earth.
Upon The Good Place’s return the following January, our inimitable heroes tried to figure out why no one had been virtuous enough to gain admission to The Good Place for centuries. However, they’re met with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy whose process will take about as long to find the answer. “We have rules. Procedures. We’re the good guys. We can’t just do stuff,” says one of the committee members.
“The whole time you’re doing this the bad guys are continuing to torture everyone,” Michael says. The jab at the real-life obsession of many with civility and cooperation in the face of evil was obvious.
When Michael et al bring their findings to the Judge (Maya Rudolph), she agrees that the points system by which humans obtain entry to The Good or Bad Place is cooked, assigning unintended consequences — such as supporting the exploitation of workers and climate change — to every act regardless of the motive. Her solution is to cancel Earth and start again, which is apt, because if we don’t start taking action on climate change, international relations and rampant inequality, that’s where things are going to end up on a grand scale.
Schur claims The Good Place is not a commentary on modern politics, saying at the Television Critics Association that “we’ve tried to keep the ethics that our characters are discussing and the ethics of modern-day America [separate].” While The Good Place may not be as blatant a commentary on Trump’s America as some other shows currently on the air, the writers room makes sure to pepper in some digs at the fact that Nazis are a thing again and that “good places” don’t turn away refugees.
Some such shows include another with the trendy “good” in the title, CBS All Access’ The Good Fight, a spin-off of The Good Wife, which dropped just after The Good Place in early 2017 and is perhaps the definitive show exploring how to navigate and transform unjust systems. Other series that explored similar themes last year include Dead to Me, Fleabag, Russian Doll, and Broad City.
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Striving For a Better Place
This final season is The Good Place’s most political yet, with the introduction of a new foursome who have to find the answer to what it means to be a good person, but this time with the self-righteous Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) butting heads with walking MAGA hat Brent (played flawlessly by Benjamin Koldyke).
“Why are we always expected to forgive people when they do shitty things?” Simone asks, referring to the belief that it’s always the responsibility of those who are hurt to reach across the aisle and make peace with the people doing the harm. Brent, meanwhile, is the embodiment of an oblivious straight, white middle-aged man, not blinking an eye at the fact that he got into The Good Place and looking forward to the promise of an even Better Place. With all of Brent’s privileges, he’s the ultimate Good Place test subject.
How do we make good choices in a world which offers precious few? Most often when I lament the fact that the earth is burning around us — quite literally, as I write this from Australia which is experiencing the worst wildfire disaster in history — my older colleagues and family members laugh it off and tell me to be more positive. We see this in the rabid response to Greta Thunberg and climate protesters more generally (which count two Good Place cast members, Ted Danson and Manny Jacinto, amongst their ranks), and to any person who suggests that maybe we need to rethink how we live our lives just a tiny bit.
In the midst of all this, The Good Place mirrors our worst flaws and gently suggests that we work on tackling them together. Even if our fates are sealed, we can always try.