“On paper, this is paradise. All your desires and needs are met. But it’s infinite and when perfection goes on forever, you become this glassy-eyed mush person.” (Patty aka Hypatia of Alexandria)
The best part about watching the Good Place is that you are simultaneously watching two shows at the same time.
On the surface, it’s a classic TV sitcom with a cast of kooky characters who bumble through each week’s episode, trying to undo mistakes created by their character flaws.
The Good Place, however, has also never been just a sitcom.
Underneath the humor and breezy storylines, the show has surprised its audience with some audacious twists and its profound perspective about the nature of human existence.
It’s a master’s thesis on some of the deepest and most profound philosophical questions ever asked.
As sentient creatures aware of our impending death, how does one make sense of this transient life? Why do we choose good over evil? What happens if we are selfish and don’t leave the world a better place? Is change possible? Do we deserve second chances?
It is a sitcom written by Socrates, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Plato, Hume, Locke, and the lesser-known philosopher — Hypatia of Alexandria. We amusingly meet Hypatia (aka Patty), played by Lisa Kudrow in this week’s episode.
The real-life architect and philosopher of this show is none other than Mike Schur, the voice behind other delightful workplace sitcoms, such as The Office and Parks and Rec. His comedies have always focused on ordinary people trying to find their tribe while dealing with bureaucratic bullshit, and their own delusions or weaknesses. The situations are playful and goofy, but the humor is never lazy, crass, or cruel. And there is always a sensitive heart and soul pulsing beneath it all.
In the Good Place, these goofy characters aren’t selling paper or building swingsets. They’re trying to save each other’s souls, and also fix a broken afterlife system.
The latest episode finds our cast entering the real Good Place at long last. This is what we’ve all been waiting for.
In typical Good Place fashion, it is an illusion, a letdown, not as promised in the glossy brochures.
For four seasons, we’ve seen the afterlife as a bureaucratic nightmare — the government office from hell, so to speak — in which nothing ever runs smoothly. The people working the system know it’s screwed up, but they are bureaucratic drones — unmotivated to change something that has become cumbersome, confusing, and convoluted. They are content to do the job as it has been done since time literally began.
Or they want to hand it off to some unsuspecting schmuck, as the real Good Place committee immediately does to Ted Danson’s Michael. They put him in charge and then bolt, leaving a messy, broken Good Place entirely on his shoulders.
It’s up then to our quirky heroes to fix the afterlife once again.
In the real Good Place, the inhabitants can have an endless stream of everything they ever wanted, and it can be delivered instantaneously. They need only ask. No work is required.
In theory — that sounds amazing. In reality? It provides fleeting joy. It can’t even hold the attention of dopey Jason, who tells them his lifelong dream of go-carting with monkeys got old really fast.
It turns out our ultimate fantasies will only entertain and fulfill us for about ten minutes. We aren’t monkeys in go-carts. We are sentient beings. And eternity is a long time when we have no purpose, no plan, no goals, no challenges, no tragedies, no pain, no sadness, and no existential angst, motivating us to seek happiness and meaning.
A SENSE OF ENNUI
Nobody has entered the real Good Place in 500 years, so our excited newcomers are met by long-term occupants who are no longer basking in the glow of the all-you-can-eat-buffet aspect of heaven. They are bored. Detached. And worse — their brains have atrophied and turned to mush.
After thousands of years in this brain-dead heaven, Hypatia is no longer a brilliant philosopher and mathematician. She’s a woman in a football jersey who drinks milkshakes made of stardust and forgets what the word for math is.
The real Good Place isn’t constant fun and games. The inhabitants are experiencing ennui — they are ‘listless, dissatisfied, lacking in occupation or excitement.’ These people are just passing the time. They aren’t experiencing true passion or love.
It turns out that having everything you want without earning it isn’t heaven — IT’S HELL.
That’s not a philosophical thesis usually presented in the sitcom format.
The Good Place, however, has always at its source been a comedic interpretation of Sartre’s play No Exit. Hell is other people. So choose your people wisely. Otherwise, you will be stuck having to confront yourself and those around you forever. No exit = an eternity of self-torture.
A LITTLE BIT SAD
“The Good Place is a disaster. Everyone here is a happiness zombie.” (Eleanor)
How do you motivate people who are burnt out on happiness?
Eleanor reminds Michael about what she told him when he was going through his midlife crisis — “Every human is a little bit sad all the time because we know we’re going to die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.”
We live by a ticking clock, and that forces us to get off our butts and do something substantial with our short lives.
With an eternity before the inhabitants of the real Good Place — what is there to do when they’ve done everything a million times already?
Michael and the gang devise a plan. Every person is now free to exit the Good Place whenever they want — to end their existence. Even if they don’t opt-out, just knowing the option exists allows them to persevere and not fall into ennui.
Their time is no longer necessarily unlimited. They must make the most of it.
Yes, this dilemma is solved relatively quickly. And with only the series finale left, I am eager to see if there is one final twist.
I will miss this show dearly. It didn’t just entertain me. And it didn’t just make me think about the afterlife.
It made me think about the here and now, and about how I want to spend the days and hours I have left on earth.
“This doesn’t seem like this is fun for you. You’ve basically been on a neverending vacation. And vacations are only special because they end.” (Eleanor)
As a person dealing with midlife transition, I’m about to embark on the second half of my life. I’m in empty nest and downsizing mode, with a blank slate before me. The clock is ticking loudly now, but instead of feeling as if my time is running out, or as if I should retire — I feel as if I’m just getting started.
There are not enough hours in the day to do all the things that bring me fulfillment and joy.
I see myself blossoming in this next stage — going back to school, starting a new career, maybe opening a business. And also, creating a community of likeminded individuals who are also seeking a more profound connection and a life of service.
I think I’m luckier than many people I know. Middle-age doesn’t scare me. I’ve always known what motivates and drives me. I possess a strong sense of purpose and passion. I don’t plan on retiring ever, as a neverending vacation in so-called paradise would bore me to tears.
My idea of hell? Living in a retirement community in Florida or Arizona (the often-mocked states of Jason and Eleanor) while biding my time in a life of meaningless leisure with overly-tanned, pre-cancerous skin, and standing in line at the casino buffet.
My greatest pleasure and joy comes from my curiosity, love of learning, creativity, hard work, dancing, spirituality, connection, and being of service of others. Those things will sustain me in my old age and keep me from ever getting bored or falling into ennui.
Often in a midlife crisis, people act impulsive and implode. Frightened by their mortality, they flee the life they’ve built. They burn it all down. They start over. They find new friends who validate their impulsive choices. They seek a constant stream of external distraction and pleasure. They get lost in vices. They brag about not having plans or goals. They think a simple life without any stress or work or worries will bring them happiness.
That sounds precisely like a self-constructed hell to me.
The happiest humans on the planet are the ones who have a reason for getting out of bed in the morning.
And if, as Satre said, hell is other people — I think the Good Place has shown us that — heaven is also other people.
We need to pick our companions wisely. It’s not about staying busy or playing games or sharing external adventures. It’s about showing up for each other and sharing our love, trust, and loyalty — especially when things get scary or tough.
None of us are perfect. Our human design has flaws, and we are built to make mistakes. And so we make numerous choices daily that put us in a good or bad place.
But maybe we only recognize the Good Place for what it is once we’ve served our time in the Bad Place.
Maybe despite our propensity for selfishness and self-preservation as a species, we all deserve endless reboots and opportunities to evolve.
Hopefully, the Good Place isn’t a boring vacation or retirement community.
I think it’s not a final destination at all.
I believe the Good Place is wherever we are at any given moment — when we are making good choices while surrounded by good people.