The Good Place Was a Metaphor All Along

Can moral philosophy teach people to be better? Can a television show?


This article contains spoilers through the series finale of  The Good Place.

The architects of The Good Place are two men named Michael. One, played by Ted Danson, is a demon in a skin suit whose job is to devise preposterous and subtly cruel scenarios with which to provoke maximum silliness among the four oddball characters in his care. The other is Michael Schur, The Good Place’s creator and showrunner, whose job is to devise preposterous and subtly cruel scenarios with which to provoke maximum silliness among the four oddball characters in his care. And both reveal themselves as having an ulterior motive in the end: the desire to create something fundamentally meaningful, something that maybe has the capacity to alter the people who experience it for the better.

TV shows exist for a lot of reasons, very few of them high-minded and none entirely divorced from a framework that demands both viewership and profit. And yet the superlative ones try to do something else, too—to slightly influence the ways in which the people watching them understand the world, and one another. No recent series has done this as transparently as The Good Place. The NBC sitcom disguised itself as one thing (a comedy about a woman who accidentally got into heaven) before revealing that it was actually something else: a comedic appraisal of philosophy, morality, and the meaning of life. All of this was made palatable to network TV viewers with the help of winning stars, joyful puns, and a lightness of tone that kept things defiantly frivolous.

But what I kept coming back to over the course of “Whenever You’re Ready,” Thursday night’s transcendent one-hour finale, was how much The Good Place also functioned as a metaphor for television itself, with its godlike creators, its capricious fans (Maya Rudolph’s Judge Gen foremost among them), its formulaic constraints, and its inherent potential. Both the secret hell-dimension of the Good Place and the comedy The Good Place begin with the premise of four entirely dissimilar people being brought together in a place that they believe is heaven. Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell) is an “Arizona dirtbag” whose higher purpose on Earth began and ended with tequila and celebrity-baby plastic-surgery magazines. Chidi (William Jackson Harper) is a pathologically indecisive moral-philosophy professor. Tahani (Jameela Jamil) is a name-dropping socialite obsessed with luxury and status. Jason (Manny Jacinto) is a Floridian doofus defined by his love for wings, Molotov cocktails, and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In the Good Place and in their roles as TV characters, these people are supposed to torture one another for the entertainment of the people watching—their demon overlords, and us, the viewers at home. It’s the setup of sitcoms and reality shows since time immemorial: Put some contrasting characters or odd couples together and watch them drive one another crazy. When The Good Place revealed its big twist at the end of Season 1, the show got more interesting but also more meta. How would heaven reboot itself? Could the series function outside its carefully constructed premise? What might happen without the specific formula of the original configuration?

Schur apparently came up with the idea for The Good Place after watching the first season of The Leftovers, Damon Lindelof’s masterful HBO drama about a world experiencing the aftermath of a Rapture-like event. After setting up a meeting with Lindelof through his agent, Schur pitched him The Good Place and asked for guidance. Lindelof’s advice was to plan everything strategically ahead of time, so that the show would never feel like its components weren’t part of some grand design. To truly sell a fictional universe, in other words, the TV showrunner has to have a godlike vision and commitment to a concept.

No matter where and when The Good Place’s characters found themselves—heaven, hell, Australia—their fundamental inquiry remained the same: How can humans help one anther be better? On the show, Chidi taught his friends the basics of the trolley problem, the categorical imperative, contractualism. And as the series went on, Schur and his writers revealed how its own guiding philosophical principle had changed from Sartre’s No Exit (“Hell is other people”) to the title of a Season 4 episode: “Help Is Other People.”

What does any of this mean, in the end? Schur’s hope, at least as embodied on the show by Rudolph’s box-set-addicted judge, seems to be that television can make people a little kinder, a little more thoughtful, a little less inclined to condemn one another without context. When The Good Place’s characters first meet Judge Gen (short for hydrogen, the original element), she’s been tasked with ruling on whether the four humans should be sent to the Bad Place, or whether they’d earned their way into heaven. The judge is mercurial and primarily motivated by wanting to get back to binge-watching Bloodline, but she’s also sentimental about the four in a palpable way. Watching TV, and being exposed to human stories, seems to have made her slightly fonder of these walking flesh bags and their foolish ways. Or at least more open to the idea of their potential.

Like all good TV shows, The Good Place had to decide when to call it quits. Much of the poignancy of “Whenever You’re Ready,” in which the four humans resolved to move on when they tired of heaven, came from the fact that the same conundrum applied to the show itself. As a viewer, I didn’t feel entirely ready to see the end of these characters, which implies that this was the perfect time for them to go—before Schur could run out of momentum or the show’s concept could wear thin. But for viewers, as for D’Arcy Carden’s Janet (and Dr. Manhattan on another great Lindelof show), the joy is that the characters aren’t really gone. Television, like Janet’s experience of time, isn’t linear anymore.  At any point, any viewer can return to any Good Place episode, any moment, any reaction GIF or Florida gag or Getty sunset. Endings are inevitable, but on TV, nothing ever really ends. After all, up in her chambers, Judge Gen has only just started watching The Leftovers.