‘Sometimes, when you’re feeling helpless, the secret is to help someone else. Get out of your own head. Trust me. The next time someone asks for help, say yes.’ – Michael, ‘The Good Place’ Season 3, episode 1
On Thursday of this past week, with the impeachment hearings dragging on to their preordained conclusion, one of the most original and thoughtful television programs in recent memory came to an end: the four-year run of The Good Place broadcast its last episode.
There will be no spoilers from me. If you were a steady viewer you’ve already watched the conclusion, probably more than once. Culminating episodes can hardly ever live up to expectations (cf. the multitude of frivolous lawsuits pending against Game of Thrones and the residual anger over Dexter, now simmering for six-plus years!) but sometimes there’s a winner: Breaking Bad, Justified, Newhart. And now The Good Place.
This show tackled some weighty problems, among them most obviously, what it means to be good. And what that means, apparently, is to make other people good. Paragons of virtue may be admirable, but in a vacuum their accomplishments are minimal and unremarkable. Telling a child to be good is simple enough, and referring to ourselves as good people is reassuring and even encouraging. But making other people good—that’s the trick. And in The Good Place, making others good was not just a noble gesture; it was the only gesture that mattered.
For the four main characters mistakes, apologies, and sincere attempts to improve far outweighed any sort of religious or secular, even spiritual perfection. Trial and error permeated the episodes, and the running gag—that nobody got to heaven anymore because the point system was too demanding—is not at all difficult to comprehend when we understand the mistakes we make daily, hourly, minutely.
In America and to some extent in the world at large (MAGA, Brexit, nationalism) we have made a fetish of striking out on our own, have made rugged individualism an obsession, and left little room for "weak" qualities like empathy and humanity. And while there is nothing wrong with personal achievement—quite the opposite of course—The Good Place asks us to strike a balance between our desire for personal betterment and our responsibility for bringing others along with us.
Of course like all TV series, there were some episodes that fell short, and there were times when I wasn’t sure if the characters or the writers knew where they were going; in retrospect they did. And these last few episodes have been extraordinary and unforgettable—the kind after which a group of humans might sit around and discuss what they’d seen. Outside of book clubs and classrooms (and to a lesser degree houses of worship), we don't do that sort of thing much anymore, and hardly ever broach topics that explore our spiritual side. Maybe we should, you know, to help make each other part of...well...a good place—and maybe even improve the admission rate to whatever afterlife you profess.
And if you don't accept that whole afterlife hypothesis, there's as much merit—maybe even more—in improving our here and now.