For those who just want the cheat sheet, here’s how “The Good Place” ended Thursday, in a prolonged, heavily sentimental but ultimately satisfying series finale. (For those who don’t want to know, stop reading here and, to borrow from the show’s faux-heavenly vernacular, fork off.)
Having designed the perfect system for processing humans into the top tier of the afterlife — a.k.a. the Good Place — the show’s main characters finally got to go there themselves, in last week’s penultimate episode. Upon arrival, they discovered that everyone in the Good Place was bored out of their minds by eternal happiness.
The 4th-century philosopher Hypatia, a stardust milkshake-swilling burnout who now goes by Patty (guest star Lisa Kudrow), warned them that their brains would eventually turn to mush, like hers. The show’s takeaway was clear: No one can be satisfied forever. Even that gets old. (“We invented cosmic Coachella,” one character observed.)
I am reminded of raising my hand 40 years ago in Sister Joan Mary’s religion class in sixth grade and expressing this very concern: If we die and go to heaven, do we really have to stay there forever? Won’t we eventually get bored? Eternal bliss sounds like an awfully long commitment. (Sister wasn’t pleased, to say the least.)
It was up to the “Soul Squad” to devise one last fix to the Good Place — a portal in a redwood forest through which the inhabitants can choose to step and (presumably) dissipate into the universe. The catch is that they don’t really know what’s on the other side. Probably nothingness. But when they’re ready, they can take that final step. The mystery is what gives us meaning.
And so, one by one, as the eons elapsed, “The Good Place’s” archetypal characters chose to depart. Dopey Jason (Manny Jacinto) finally conquered the Madden NFL video game and realized he was satisfied, even if it meant leaving Janet (D’Arcy Carden), who is still not a robot but still not a being. Narcissistic Tahani (Jameela Jamil) found the lasting love from her family that she never had on Earth. She believed she was ready to go, then it occurred it to her that she should train to be one of the universe’s architects, so she became an intern.
Indecisive Chidi (William Jackson Harper) got the itch next. After a nostalgic and suitably philosophical trip to Athens and Paris with reformed bad girl Eleanor (Kristen Bell), she had the heartbreaking realization (courtesy of the philosopher T.M. Scanlon’s “What We Owe to Each Other”) that she had to let him go.
Michael, the once-demonic architect who started it all (played by Ted Danson, who was a bright and consistent anchor through all four seasons of the show), got the thing he most desired: He became human and went to Earth.
And with that, Eleanor, who represented all of humankind’s searching and skepticism (along with its failings and potential), made her own trip through the portal, dissolving into light particles.
Knee-slapping comedy? Not really. Thursday’s finale (followed by a rushed and sappy live chat for 15 minutes between the cast members and “Late Night” host Seth Meyers) lacked the knifey wit and rapid-fire momentum that defined “The Good Place,” but it delivered on the feels.
These tender tendencies are not to be underestimated in today’s comedies. It’s why people can’t stop watching Jim and Pam fall in love on reruns of “The Office,” where “Good Place” creator Michael Schur, a sort of high-functioning iconoclast in the network TV world, once worked as a writer, before co-creating “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
These shows (and their tonal cousins, such as “Superstore” and “Schitt’s Creek”) act as fuzzy blankets for an audience that prizes warmth and reassurance as much as the biting wit. It’s a carefully calibrated, salty-sweet balance between the snarky and the emotional. It’s the digs, followed by the hugs. (Those who still prefer consistent acid can turn to Larry David and his HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I think he’s all that’s left of the good ol’ bad place.)
“The Good Place” was a small miracle in the noisy, doomed atmosphere of our particular End Times. It was a gentle way to ponder our reason for being here.
As a pitch, and even in its earliest episodes, it felt a tad too twee — a half-hour sitcom about the notion of a karmic afterlife. A caper about lost souls that also obliquely explored the great big questions of existentialism. (And utilitarianism, deontology, psychological egoism, pure practical reasoning and other assorted concepts?)
Anyone could watch “The Good Place” and absorb its lessons with the comfort of knowing they wouldn’t be tested on it. Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Socrates, Plato, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Jean-Paul Sartre — in one way or another, their ideas all made an appearance. If you wanted to know more, you could. But if you only wanted to stay blissfully, vaguely aware (Jason-like, perhaps), then “The Good Place” was fine with that, too.
The show was an artful deception from start to finish, giddy with its own twists and turns (guided by an actual philosopher, Clemson University professor Todd May) and happy to lapse into the absurd. It also featured a steady parade of wickedly funny details — a soda fountain that dispenses fried shrimp and bountiful dipping sauces; a baby elephant made of pure light who knows all the secrets of the universe. (“Shirley Temple killed JFK!”)
Most of that first season fixated on Eleanor’s desire to prove herself worthy of eternal happiness, until she realized, in one of the show’s finest and most memorable moments, that the Good Place is a sham. “Holy mother-forking shirtballs!” Eleanor shouted in a flash of insight. “THIS is the Bad Place!”
Beyond its final attempt to pluck its viewers’ easily plucked heartstrings, I hope “The Good Place’s” legacy is one of inquiry, rumination and, most of all, a healthy dose of doubt. Dunked as we are in candy-coated artifice and carefully crafted lies, our world needs more Eleanors, willing to stand up and say that we’re all being duped.