The Good Place was a comedy show about the afterlife that took philosophical questions seriously — in fact, much of the action involved placing interesting characters in difficult situations that required them to think through their choices. It featured characters with broadly exaggerated, but mostly endearing, flaws who had to cope with a complex afterlife that kept confronting them with meaning and purpose and conflict, which they generally overcame with good humor. It was a kind of Sesame Street for beginning philosophers.
They recently aired their grand finale, ending the season and the series definitively. It was an entertaining, sweet, charming episode in which characters we’d grown to know and love moved on (or beyond) their afterlife. I enjoyed watching it, and it was quite nice to see a show wrap up four years of build-up in a consistent, satisfying way (Game of Thrones, I’m giving you some side-eye there).
But here’s my problem with it: shouldn’t a show that is wallowing happily in its philosophy at some point question its premises? The show concludes nicely within the self-contained bubble of its own conceits, but it never tries to go outside of them — instead, it builds a complex set of rules that sort of work together and provide a framework for coming up with answers that fit its universe, but never steps outside of itself.
The premises of The Good Place are
that people have an essence that persists after death,
that there are higher powers that judge your behavior,
and that the universe is ultimately kind.
Accept those ideas, and you have a set of rules within which characters can operate and drive a story. These are also premises that are as old as sentient beings’ attempts to find meaning in their existence, and they are also the premises that people want to be true, which ought to immediately throw up a red flag on the play. I distrust those ideas. I can see how they are necessary to drive a commercially viable, relatively long-running narrative, but there are alternatives that aren’t addressed.
It’s a kind of anti-Lovecraftian show, for example. The premises of a Cthulhu story would be
that people are insignificant, ephemeral specks moving into the void,
that there are greater beings who are implacable and unsympathetic,
and that the universe is ultimately cruel in its uncaring nature.
There isn’t a lot of room for humor or plot development there. My show, The Meaningless Place, which I ought to float for some network executives, would begin with Eleanor Shellstrop dying an unexpected, arbitrary death, and then…credits. We could maybe linger over her decaying corpse for a bit, but otherwise it’s over. There are no amusing hijinks, no character development, no dilemmas for Eleanor to think about, because she has ceased to exist and there is no one there to think anymore. The universe would roll on, unperturbed. Viewers would receive no comfort or consolation in a heart-warming finale.
It would be cheap and quick to make, at least.
I can understand why the show made the decisions it did — it was one of the few ways to set up propositions that would allow dead people to move within a framework interesting to living people — but its premises are also its greatest limitations. I can still enjoy The Good Place as a thought experiment or metaphor for a humanist ideal of a well considered life, but the finale only works within its own conceits, and none of its solutions are applicable to me. I’d been maneuvered into an improbable scenario with its own internal logic that had placed it outside of any useful experience.
Which is fine. You can still enjoy a fantasy novel, even if dragons and magic aren’t real. It’s just hard to find a real-life situation where dragon-slaying skills matter.