The Radical Generosity Of 'The Good Place' Made It One Of The Greatest Modern TV Shows

Major spoilers for The Good Place follow.Imagine pitching a half-hour sitcom like so: our main character wakes up dead. She's in heaven. But here's the thing: she's a real piece of crap. Of course, there's so much more to Michael Schur's The Good Place, the NBC comedy that ended its four-season run last night. It's a universe- and century-spanning epic of cosmic proportions, told in fifty brightly colored, bizarrely conceived, half-hour increments. It's the story of a love that survives the relentless advance of time, a Miltonesque battle between good and evil, a celestial examination of where humanity stands in the measureless universe, and a covert lesson in moral philosophy. And, not for nothing, it's also very, very funny.But above all it's two simple questions: what do we owe each other? And can we be better?

The Architect

It's interesting that Schur named the architect of his Good Place – and Bad Place – Michael. Ted Danson's author surrogate is, at first glance, the gee-willikers creator of an idealized universe. Michael Schur himself created such a utopia in Parks and Recreation, the first show bearing his name as creator. Parks and Rec's first episode aired in 2009, the first year of the Obama presidency, and aside from some quirky townie foibles and red-tape mishaps, the series offers a pretty halcyon representation of government. Within the Pawnee City Hall resides Parks and Rec's heroine, Amy Poehler's brilliant turn as plucky civil servant Leslie Knope, and she's an impossible standard of goodness, a shining beacon of integrity, hard work and generosity.And then there's Eleanor Shellstrop, Kristen Bell's starring role in The Good Place. Eleanor is, by all accounts including her own, just an Arizona dirtbag looking out for number one. You might say she's a heroine for Trump's America (the Bad Place if ever there were one). And Michael, we learn at the end of Season One, is the demon responsible for this world, pretending to be a good guy because he created a seemingly good place. In reality, his intentions aren't pure, and his moral compass is even more broken than Eleanor's. But Michael, the architect, the creator, is like anyone else on this show – he gets a chance to grow, to redeem himself. It's possible that Schur sees himself as closer to a Shellstrop than a Knope, and maybe he wants the opportunity to become better. Maybe that's all any of us wants.That's what The Good Place offers us, in the year 2020, a new decade bringing with it very little of the uncomplicated hope we felt in 2009. The Good Place is, in its own way, as full of optimism and humanity as its predecessor (or as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the other series created by TV's auteur of nice), but it's a special, accessible, actualized sort of optimism. It's the kind of clear-eyed hope that understands that we humans are mostly selfish jerks trying to coast by without rocking the boat – and that we, each of us, deserve the chance to be more than that. The Good Place starts with a dirtbag and a demon conning their way around heaven and, over the course of four seasons and uncountable Jeremy Bearimies, ends with them saving all of humanity, and fixing the shirtshow that is the afterlife while they're at it. 

Team Cockroach

And they don't do it alone. Michael first gathers a small group of people designed as the perfect means to torture Eleanor: a stodgy moral philosophy professor and elegant philanthropist play to her inferiorities, and a Florida DJ matches Eleanor in scumminess but lacks her cunning, becoming the likeliest avenue to getting her caught. But it turns out that Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto) are much more than foibles or even friends to Eleanor (although they do end up becoming the best possible friends to each other). They're all on their own journeys to become better people and, eventually, save the universe. Add in Eleanor, Michael and Janet, D'Arcy Carden's sweater-vested operational mainframe and source of all knowledge, and we have Team Cockroach, the piddly nobodies who dare to think they can change the way things have worked, or not worked, for centuries. Think on that: four humans, a reformed demon and a robot lady (not a robot, not a lady) fix the afterlife. It starts with something impossible: acknowledging that the afterlife even needs fixing, or is capable of being fixed. When Team Cockroach learns that no human has been sent to The Good Place in hundreds of years due to a broken points system that doesn't take into account all of the complexities of modern life, they don't just shrug and accept it. Here's an absolutely insuperable problem that affects everyone – like, everyone – and in the face of those, we humans tend to pretty much give up. Climate change, bigotry, wealth inequality – these colossal, universal afflictions are probably not unsolvable on a long enough timeline or grand enough scale, but how the fork are any of us supposed to settle them in our lifetimes? So why try, right? Here's where The Good Place has the most in common with Parks and Recreation: both shows share the radical belief that a few people fighting back against unconquerable odds always makes a difference. Maybe that small resistance won't solve climate change, revolutionize local government or mend heaven, but it'll inspire a few other people to fight back, too. And on the most essential level, the fight changes us, the ones who are fighting. Even if no tangible progress is made toward whatever particular plight we're attempting to tackle, we're still doing something, and that matters. The very attempt makes us better, and it's what we owe our fellow cockroaches.

The “Answer”

In The Good Place's third season finale, written by Megan Amram and Jen Statsky, Eleanor learns that she must sacrifice her love with Chidi for a greater good. Faced with losing what matters most to her, Eleanor begs Janet for the answer – to everything. The meaning of life, of existence, of pain and love and sacrifice and triumph. What's the answer? Janet's response isn't the first or last time The Good Place knocked the wind out of me, but her speech is the one I keep coming back to, over and again, every time I feel like I need my own answers:

The more human I become, the less things make sense. But that's part of the fun, right? If there were an answer I could give you to how the universe works, it wouldn't be special. It would just be machinery fulfilling its cosmic design. It would just be a big, dumb food processor. But, since nothing seems to make sense, when you find something or someone that does, it's euphoria. In all this randomness, in this pandemonium, you and Chidi found each other, and you had a life together. Isn't that remarkable?

It's remarkable. And it's an answer we come back to in the Season 4 episode written by Daniel Schofield and fittingly titled, "The Answer." Chidi, who has spent his entire life seeking answers, searching for symmetry and meaning, watches every minute of his life and every one of his afterlives pass before him, and realizes this simple truth for himself: "There is no 'answer.' But Eleanor is the answer."Chidi and Eleanor's dynamic makes for such an interesting onscreen romance because it's not the smoking hot, will-they-won't-they chemistry of YA or primetime dramas, but the thoughtful, mellow love of two adults who have had all the time in the universe to get to know each other, and who choose each other again and again. The context of their vast histories together both informs their love and doesn't, because sometimes they remember those histories and sometimes they don't, but we know it, and eventually they know it: Chidi and Eleanor always come back to one another. But as much as this show is about the pure, Jeremy Bearimy love of Chidi and Eleanor, it's about the love they share with their friends, too. That love transforms Janet from a not-robot into the most advanced being in the entire universe. It transforms Michael from a demon into a scholar, a friend, a hero and eventually just a really delightful human. It transforms Jason from a shallow dummy into, well, sort of a monk, and Tahani from a jealous snob into a capable and dedicated architect.This is the generosity of The Good Place, the beautiful gift it gives us in the midst of all this pandemonium. It tells us that we can be better, that we can make any place The Good Place by being kind to each other and relying on one another. That what we do for others – our friends, people we've never met or people we don't even like that much – can be exactly what we were needing for ourselves from the beginning. And, in the most astonishing gift of all, The Good Place offers some simple, credible meaning to our random, messy existence:There are no "answers," but love is the answer. Thank you for the answer, The Good Place, and for all of the forevers. Take it sleazy.