It would be really cool if the afterlife were actually like this.
I mean not really, since the whole premise of The Good Place is that the afterlife sucks and needs to be made better, so I wouldn’t really want to go there. But there are still parts of their afterlife that are appealing. The show itself is really quite something for a sitcom about a bunch of dead people trying to sort their (after)lives out and learn how to be better people.
There are going to be some spoilers for The Good Place in this review, notably the extremely obvious plot twist at the end of the first season, and then a little bit about the ending. And I’m pretty sure you lose points for spoiling things without telling people, so there’s the warning.
The basic premise of the show is that Eleanor Shellstrop, played by the redoubtable Kristen Bell, wakes up from having died and is informed by a being named Michael (who bears the imagery of the archangel Gabriel, annoyingly) that she’s died and gone to the Good Place, a nonreligious heaven that is the positive outcome of a good life. She’s joined by Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), but there’s a problem—Eleanor doesn’t belong in the Good Place because she was a bad person and knows it. The first season basically follows her trying to learn to be a good person to retroactively earn her spot in the Good Place by studying ethics with Chidi, who was a professor of moral philosophy on Earth (representing the good team!).
The show is a comedy, so there are a lot of jokes about heaven and hell and religion and philosophy and what have you, and they’re quite well done, it’s really clear that the writers did their homework for this show, and cared about the subject matter. It’s like I always tell my students: write about something you care about and the result will be better. This is the major spoiler, but the big plot twist at the end of season one is that the four main characters aren’t actually in the Good Place at all, but are in a specially designed Bad Place where instead of being tortured by demons, they all socially and mentally torture each other. This is pretty obvious from the second or third episode in (there are four main characters, Michael keeps making sure they can’t get away from each other, it’s basically a colourful rendition of No Exit—it wasn’t hard to figure out), but that’s okay because even though the twist is super obvious, the show is well done enough that waiting for it to be revealed is suspenseful rather than tedious. And after it’s revealed, subsequent seasons of the show get really good as the characters try to escape hell, come back to life and die again, and then end up redesigning the whole afterlife when they realize it’s unfairly biased against modern humans.
I just want to pause before I get into an actual discussion of the show to shout out D’Arcy Carden, who plays the afterlife’s omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent helping hand Janet. Carden does a fabulous job with the character, is probably the best actor in the show and should definitely have won that Emmy for the episode Janet(s), where she plays the whole cast and it’s perfect.
I think one of the strongest points of the show is how it manages to critique stuff without being disrespectful. It doesn’t touch too much on religion, at least not directly, but it clearly has a lot to say about how nonsensical the finality of an afterlife where your actions over one lifetime determine your treatment for literal eternity is. It would have been good if it could have commented a tiny bit more directly on that, if only so it could hold Jude’s attention a bit better, but they also didn’t want the show to be a whole critique of just Christianity or something, which is what most people think of when they think about religion. I think it’s okay, since the whole show is basically a commentary on the whole idea of the afterlife. But it’s also a commentary on the idea that philosophy can inherently make you a good person—that’s part of the premise of a lot of the show, which kind of made me cringe at first because “being a good person” is really not the point of any branch of philosophy, and pretending that it is is really reductionist and kind of silly, but that all gets undermined pretty early when it becomes clear that while taking the time to understand the interplay between your choices and their consequences is definitely worth doing, actually being a good person is just about doing good stuff, not about reading a lot of Kant (thank God).
The other really strong element in the show, I think, is the way it handles relationships. It introduces this soulmate concept at the very beginning, which is then revealed to be bullshit, except that it kind of comes back later on in the form that you choose a soulmate, and it’s work, and honestly, I think that’s a really meaningful thing. It’s a really seductive idea, that the universe has picked out someone for each of us to be with in a fated way, and it’s really romantic to imagine finding that person, but relationships aren’t easy like that. You have to work just to maintain them, and if you want someone to be your soulmate, you have to put the effort in to make that happen. Even though Eleanor and Chidi are a boring heterosexual couple (in a show where the writers wer kind of tone-deaf when they flirted with Eleanor flirting Tahani in a way where it sometimes wasn’t clear if it was actually signalling queerness or just queerbaiting), watching them get together over and over again every time they lose their memories is really nice, because you get the sense that yes, they should be together, not because the universe fated it for them, but because they’re actively overcoming all these obstacles to be together. They really do deserve the happily ever after that they get.
In the end, the show earns a legitimately happy ending, in a way that’s really satisfying and leaves you feeling good about yourself and the show. And that more than anything is, I think, the highest praise I can give the show. It made me feel like, yes, everything really is fine.