The Good Place tackled life and death like never before, and showed us why we need TV to tackle spiritual issues more often.
It’s been weeks since The Good Place finale, and I’m still stunned at how excellently this show pulled off such a complicated concept. How do you write about life after death without making it feel completely disingenuous? When neither the showrunners nor the audience know what actually happens after we die, and every person has their own ideas about what the afterlife (or lack thereof) looks like, this show should have been a disaster.
That’s probably why Michael Schur gave every one of the four seasons a very silly vibe, and coated every emotional breakthrough with a lot of great humor. The Good Place didn’t take itself too seriously (it wasn’t preachy) — and it didn’t take you too seriously either (it didn’t pander).
I can’t say I’ve seen any other show that could pull this off so successfully. The closest I can think of is Dead Like Me, which also discussed life after death, but lacked a lot of The Good Place ’s wholesomeness. Generally, we leave the big existential questions — questions beyond the scope of interpersonal drama or identity in a day-to-day sense — to religion.
(And let’s be honest, TV shows sponsored by religions usually both preach and pander to a specific set of people. They’re far from universal.)
Full disclosure: I’m religious. I follow the Baha’i Faith and I do believe in an afterlife (presumably not one like the one Eleanor experiences, although who knows, really?). But I don’t think you have to be religious to appreciate the finale of The Good Place. You certainly don’t need to believe in an afterlife to enjoy the show!
Regardless of your beliefs on what happens after death, The Good Place did a stunning job of bringing its audience together on the one thing we can all agree on: being a person is hard, and we’re all just trying to figure out how to get better at it.
But interestingly, The Good Place ’s efforts to be universal didn’t mean that it shied away from talking about actual religion (even if Doug Forcett was the only one who actually got it right). The concept of a “Good Place” and a “Bad Place” exists in many belief systems, but most notably in Christianity.
The finale featured a Buddhist quote which is probably the most hard-hitting moment in the entire show. The concept of continuous personal growth even after death, which becomes Michael and the team’s greatest discovery, is a core Baha’i principle. And I’m sure that, whatever your belief system is, you too were able to find elements you identified with in some way… whether it was in the religious aspects or in the profound ethical dilemmas that guided every episode.
Sometimes I feel that, in its efforts to make art more relatable and non-controversial and fun, mainstream media shies away from showing what is a pretty major part of real life: spirituality. Whether it manifests through worship, service to others, or simply a set of personal standards of behavior, everyone dedicates some amount of time in their lives to thinking about how they relate to something larger than themselves — the universe, a larger truth, God, or something else. And ignoring that innate longing we all have to understand how our lives fit into the larger scope of things, is ignoring something that’s actually pretty important.
The Good Place understood that, and instead of merely populating its mythology with made-up values, it drew from universal ones, thriving on the diversity of humanity’s ideas of our place in this existence. Through the words of many different philosophers, religious texts and Janets, it articulated why we should have compassion for others, how to face our own failures, and how to help each other grow. And finally, it showed us how all of it can help us face life’s biggest mystery: death.
I recognize that not everyone’s definition of spirituality is the same, and not everyone’s experience with the concept of death is the same. I know that some people weren’t happy with the way the finale framed death and grief, especially at the end of such a hopeful show. But I think it was about as close as The Good Place could get to showing death, with all its potential for pain and peace, joy and sadness, in a way that didn’t feel gimmicky or too funny. The finale felt honest, and it was certainly powerful.
The Good Place was a stunning attempt at the kind of shows I hope we see more of in the future: shows that can tackle our big existential questions in a way that brings us together, regardless of our backgrounds or beliefs, and give us hope for humanity.