Take It SleazyA “Good Place” Goodbye Roundtable

Jameela Jamil as Tahani, left, Manny Jacinto as Jason, D'Arcy Carden as Janet, Kristen Bell as Eleanor, and William Jackson Harper as Chidi in The Good Place (Photo credit: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Television fans probably weren’t surprised that The Good Place, when it premiered in 2016, was enthusiastically embraced by both critics and viewers: Its creator, Michael Schur, is responsible for shows like Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the American version of The Office—sitcoms that re-engineered the form with a potent alchemy of goofball absurdism, surprising character development, and pointed nods to cultural discourse that never felt labored, mean-spirited, or saccharine.

The Good Place in particular became a favorite among Bitch staff. Maybe it’s because we can relate to a show whose characters are constantly asking questions about how to live in the world (even if that world is the afterlife) and why it matters. Maybe watching other humans—and a few demons—trying to understand the increasingly outlandish world around them felt timely. Maybe we liked being able to participate in pressing online discourse like “Is Chidi too swole?” Regardless, reaching the end of the show’s four seasons was an emotional odyssey that called for some group reflection on why we watched and what we’ll miss.

First question: How long into the finale did you make it before starting to sob loudly?

Alison Vu, director of fundraising: The first time I sobbed was when Jason (Manny Jacinto) decided to go through the door. I had to pause the show to sob loudly when Eleanor (Kristen Bell) tried to convince Chidi (William Jackson Harper) to stay with her. “I don’t like being alone.” Just… leave me alone!

Jessica De Jesus, creative director: First off, I hid the bottom half of my face in my hoodie as soon as we started [watching] because my face was just constantly wet. My first tear-up was also Jason, especially since I was already close to tears from laughing about how ridiculous it still is that his dad is Donkey Doug. I’m also Filipino, so seeing Manny Jacinto’s time as one of the best characters on TV end was even more emotional for me.

Andi Zeisler, cofounder: I started sniffling when Jason left. But when Tahani’s (Jameela Jamil) parents arrived in the Good Place and told her and Kamilah (Rebecca Hazlewood) how sorry they were for how they’d treated them in life, I started weeping and didn’t stop. I really freaked my dog out.

Rachel Charlene Lewis, senior editor: I did not think I would cry. Honestly, a lot of the final season… didn’t do it for me. Or at least, I didn’t think it was doing it for me. But once Chidi started talking about waves, the tears finally hit, and they didn’t stop coming. His confidence in sureness in his decision absolutely destroyed me; I was so proud of him, and found myself craving that feeling of sureness.

Marina Watanabe, social media editor: I absolutely cried when Eleanor begged Chidi to stay with her, and he agreed so she wouldn’t be alone. That killed me.

Seriously, though: What did you think of the finale? Did you find it to be a satisfying closure?

AV: I think there’s been a lot of backlash to TV-show endings of late. It makes sense; these are characters you’re invested in. You’d want to see the conclusion to their stories end in a satisfying way. I think The Good Place does that. Every character has a piece of the last episode dedicated to their growth and the fulfillment they got through their journey.

MW: In comparison to other finales I’ve watched in the past year, The Good Place’s was relatively enjoyable. I may be in the minority, but this season failed to grip me as much as previous seasons. Every episode felt like it needed to have a big twist, and the stakes didn’t end up feeling as real to me. I was really satisfied with the ending to the penultimate episode, and would have preferred to see it end there. The actual finale felt like a nice bonus, but ultimately, when paired with the after-show with the cast and Seth Meyers, it gave me the feeling that the creators were yelling “REMEMBER HOW MUCH YOU LOVE THIS SHOW?!” at me, and I hate that feeling.

AZ: I agree with Alison that people seem to have higher expectations of show endings; fandoms can be so intense that there’s really no way to satisfy them so either you get a ton of fan service or you get something that feels completely out of left field. (Yes, I’m still looking at you, Dexter.) I felt like this one struck a good balance of callbacks to previous plot points/jokes and unexpected twists.

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White American culture, in the main, is famously bad at talking about death. Do you think shows like The Good Place, which address death and afterlife with nuance and without absolutism, have the potential to shift that?

AV: Even though The Good Place is a show about being dead, I don’t know if that’s what people will take away from it. I think the show ended on a note of “Be good and goodness will spread,” a feel-good moment that’s way easier to digest than “There comes a time where you might choose not to exist anymore.”

JDJ: I think so. Even though the show took place in the afterlife, we got to see the group get this second chance at “living” once they finally arrived in the real Good Place. There’s still a realization that in order to be fulfilled doing or having anything that your heart desires, you must maintain the understanding that it can end.

RL: In some ways, it never really felt to me like these characters were dead. I think a part of that is that their deaths were generally comical, so from the beginning [there was] this vibe of levity instead of doom and gloom and what we normally associate with death. I don’t know that I’d say a show like this will help us talk about death itself, or dying, but I do think it’s one of few shows that has engaged thoughtfully with the idea that what we do in life actually matters, regardless of what’s waiting on the other side—or if there is even an other side at all. I think that’s a healthy way for us to start thinking about things, and it creates an entry point for us to dive into death and the culture(s) around it without panicking or shutting down; it feels doable, and almost light.

MW: The show definitely challenges Western Christian conceptions of what happens after death (i.e. a benevolent god has created a perfect heaven for good Christians and a fiery hellscape for all the rest of us sinners.) Instead, we see that there is an entire afterlife bureaucracy that meticulously creates and maintaining the systems in place for people who have died—right down to an algorithmic point system that determines if you end up in the Good Place or the Bad Place. Essentially, it’s a conception of heaven and hell that’s entirely secular, which is pretty fascinating.

However, as everyone else has said, so much of the show’s focus is about having a second chance to live a meaningful life and be a good person. It isn’t until we finally see the Good Place in the penultimate episode that we as an audience are forced to grapple with the existential dread of being forced to exist for eternity. It’s interesting that this concept wasn’t brought [up] until the final two episodes because it’s the first time the show really asks us to contemplate the idea of death being equated with a lack of conscious existence. The Good Place characters ultimately get to choose when and if they walk through the final door and cease to exist (or at least turn into specks of light) on their own terms.

The Good Place debuted in September 2016, so it’s difficult to overlook how it became a piece of pop culture that resonated at a time when people were increasingly public about their own and others’ indifference to ethics and morality. Thoughts?

RL: It’s so interesting to me that The Good Place really wasn’t marketed in a way that revealed what it was actually about. It was just this funny comedy with a great cast. I personally was surprised to find the show reckoning with heavy texts about goodness and ethics and death, but at the same time it does make sense to me that [it] would engage with such things, given that we spend hours a day screaming on Twitter about what we think. We’ve definitely started to challenge the idea that thoughts on death and ethics and politics are [only] close-friends conversations and opened up the idea that, really, you can talk about those things with any random person on the internet. I think The Good Place echoed that: These characters don’t know each other at all (and [later] forget each other), but have this baseline of trust and the assumption of best intentions. 

AZ: I had mostly stopped watching sitcoms at the time The Good Place debuted because the tone of so many of them—even ones I initially enjoyed, like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, felt terminally cynical. The fact that The Good Place engaged with human cynicism, selfishness, and reflexive entitlement while showing that these things don’t always look the way you expect them to felt brave, and I feel like as the show went on it became a reminder that misanthropy is easy but nuance is more rewarding.

AV: When you think about the comedy and tone of positivity in The Good Place, it’s kind of jarring that it was created during that time. But that’s the power of Michael Schur shows, I think. Particularly in challenging times, people want to know that there’s good out there or that people are capable of good. I also advocate for civic engagement and not being an asshole, but this is a start.

It isn’t until we finally see the Good Place in the penultimate episode that we as an audience are forced to grapple with the existential dread of being forced to exist for eternity.

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Bitch has published some critiques of the show, like a piece pointing out that absence of any portrayals of disability reflects often dogmatic beliefs in what spiritual will and goodness looks like. Are there other absences in the show that you would have liked to see?

AV: The premise of The Good Place is built on male Western philosophers and a Judeo-Christian view of what the afterlife might look like. Sure, there are sprinklings of Buddhism in [the finale], particularly with Chidi reassuring Eleanor and Tahani deciding to stay behind as an architect, but in the end, it seems like the show validates [that] Buddhist thinking within the framework of a heaven/hell [binary]. What would The Good Place have looked like if it weighed more heavily or equally what other religions feel about life after death? I’m curious.

AZ: I thought about that a lot too. One of my favorite things about Judaism is that there is no one agreed-upon answer to the question of what happens after death—there are a lot of different conceptions and belief of whether there’s a heaven or hell or neither, or whether you spend your afterlife continuing to study the Torah. I wish the final season had spent a little more time in the actual Good Place, because after so much mystery and buildup it felt kind of rushed.

RL: I would usually never say this, but I’d be so interested in this show continuing to expand with other characters at the center. Each of [them] are so particularly characterized that if they were from different places with different cultures and different understandings than our core group, the entire show would immediately be different. I don’t know that I’d say there is any one thing that the show missed out on, but I do think there’s a way to sort of shift the lens a bit and see how new people would engage with the show’s themes because of their identities, ideologies, etc.

Was there a character that you felt particularly close to or invested in? Why? 

AV: I love Tahani and her beautiful Leo energy. I also really appreciate being able to see her progression into a selfless and truly caring person. It’s possible! 

JDJ: Chidi! I’ve been convinced since Season 1 that Chidi is an Aquarius. His extreme indecisiveness for the sake of wanting the best outcome and his stress-related stomachaches really resonated with me.

AZ: I had a lot of affection for Michael and the way his determination to fix his initial design mistakes made him empathize with people that he, as a demon, previously viewed with pure contempt. I’m glad he got the ending he did. 

RL: All of them? Honestly, though, Chidi gets my heart. I don’t know what’s more relatable than spending hours panicking about what the [right] thing to do is.

MW: I have such a soft spot for Chidi and his anxiety stomachaches. I love that the show uses his character to grapple with the idea that indecisiveness can be just as impactful (for better, but usually for worse) as making a concrete decision. I also love that fans immediately picked up on Eleanor’s bisexual energy and the show actually leaned into it. I’m grateful that they made Eleanor a bicon (bi icon).

Have you taken any lessons from The Good Place over its four seasons? What are they?

AV: In a world that can get really depressing really quick, I really appreciate the reminder that if you’re good in this world, you can spread that goodness to other people.

RL: Sometimes you have to erase it all and start from scratch, no matter how much work you’ve put in. Kill your darlings—literally, if that’s what it takes to get it right.

AZ: Bureaucracy is a tragic farce, and shrimp is gross.

MW: Throwing a Molotov cocktail will solve any problem (by creating a different problem).

JDJ: Pobody’s Nerfect.

There’s more…

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