There is a doorway. At some point, we all have to step through that doorway, and explore beyond what our lives have to offer us. It’s impossible to know what’s beyond the doorway until we step through it — it could lead to a new, ethereal plane of existence, or it could lead to a grim blackness, a vast and infinite nothingness that puts a cruel period on the sentence of life. That, at least, is how the truest version of the afterlife was envisioned in the final episodes of two very distinctive, very bold, and now concluded comedies, Netflix’s BoJack Horseman and NBC’s The Good Place. Though each of these shows envisioned the end as something tangible, they did so in striking and divergent ways, with the animated show winding up as a top-to-bottom success.

This post contains spoilers for the final seasons, and final episodes, of both shows.

Take It Sleazy

On the surface, BoJack Horseman and The Good Place share very few similarities. The former was one of Netflix’s first popular streaming programs, premiering way back in the halcyon streaming days of 2014. The premise of the animated show was that we followed the later years of the eponymous lead, voiced masterfully by Will Arnett. (Quick side note: anyone who has watched BoJack Horseman knows that Arnett is delivering a career-best performance as the title character, including in a fifth-season episode that comprises a eulogy BoJack delivers for his dead mother. And yet somehow, bafflingly, Arnett has never even been nominated for an Emmy. In case you need further proof of awards shows being dumb.) 

BoJack, as his surname would imply, was half-horse, half-man, an animal-human hybrid that’s a common part of the fabric of the story. BoJack was, as the closing-credits song intoned, on a famous TV show back in the 90s, a Full House-esque sitcom called Horsin’ Around. In the present, he tries to reclaim his fame first by writing a memoir with the help of a young ghostwriter (Alison Brie), before stumbling into larger opportunities, such as starring in a Secretariat movie and being the lead of a male-antihero cop show.

The Good Place, for whatever else is true, was always about the afterlife. In the pilot episode, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in…well, the Good Place. At first, she seems quite pleased about her heavenly arrival until she realizes that there’s been a mistake: she’s been confused for another, much kinder woman named Eleanor Shellstrop, and she has to work very hard to make sure no one, especially the Architect of the Good Place, Michael (Ted Danson), picks up on the switcheroo. The more she tries to hide her secret, the more she realizes that she’s not the only one in the Good Place under false pretense.

The Good Place only did last four seasons, but that’s because the show burned through plot like it was fuel. The first season ended with the ultimate surprise: Eleanor and her new friends were actually in the Bad Place, and Michael was the head demon, having designed a fake version of the Good Place to enact a unique form of torture. But by season two’s conclusion, Michael had turned good, worked with the humans, and convinced the judge of humanity (Maya Rudolph) to let them re-try their lives on Earth to earn a spot in the Good Place.

Bortles!

Like most of the shows on which Michael Schur has had an artistic voice, including The Office and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place (which he created) was a show that fell in love with its characters. With a cast also including William Jackson Harper (as Chidi, a neurotic philosopher), D’Arcy Carden (as Janet, an all-knowing representation of the universe), and Manny Jacinto (as Jason, a very stupid but very friendly personfication of the Florida Man meme), The Good Place was always enjoyable enough to watch because the cast brought to life every last twist, reversal, and unexpected wrinkle in the characters’ attempts to simply live out their eternities happily.

Last year, around this time, I wrote a different essay here about The Good Place, arguing that the show needed to establish an end point. By then, the fourth season had been announced, but it wouldn’t be until the summer when NBC confirmed that it was the final one. On one hand, then, I ought to be happy with the fact that The Good Place — always a much more finite story than something like Parks and Recreation or Brooklyn Nine-Nine — has said its goodbyes. And while that’s true, the distressing sense of a story being built on the fly was impossible to avoid in the last two seasons of this bold network experiment.

The fourth season’s setup was that the heroes would be given a chance to prove the worth of modern humans by bringing a few random people into a version of what the protagonists went through in the first season: somewhere that looks like the Good Place but isn’t actually the real McCoy. By the end of the final season, that premise had been fully jettisoned, in favor of letting each of the heroes achieve closure of some kind. (Each of the humans brought into the revived experiment appears for about a minute each in the finale, mostly to make sure we haven’t forgotten them entirely.) For some of them, including Eleanor, Chidi, and Jason, closure took the form of walking through a special door at the edge of the real Good Place. For Michael, closure took the form of becoming a real human. 

The series finale for The Good Place was highly praised, and it’s easy to understand why. The ending felt apt, after a penultimate episode revealed that the Good Place might be wonderful, but it also allowed its residents to become apathetic. That apathy inspired Eleanor and the rest of the crew to create that aforementioned doorway, granting Good Place denizens a more graceful exit than eternal happiness. The cast was incredible as usual at selling the emotional ups and downs of the characters they played, even as the story felt truly slipshod and haphazard. Yes, I wanted The Good Place to announce its end date. And I’m glad they did end with four seasons. But upon watching the show complete itself, it became clearer that the last two seasons were more aimless than the more focused opening two seasons. (Schur did a post-finale interview, acknowledging at least that when he got a green light for the program, he had only the first and best season fully plotted out.)

Free Churro

That BoJack Horseman largely avoided that kind of skid is somewhat remarkable. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has spoken about how he had wanted the show to wrap up with seven full seasons, not a sixth season split into two eight-episode parts. More to the point, BoJack was never free of creative missteps — the character played by Brie, Diane Nguyen, is Vietnamese-American, in spite of the actress portraying her being White. But BoJack, which may have seemed more callous and one-dimensional in its first few episodes, unfolded more and more gradually as a sharp, often unflinching satire of both popular culture and modern life as a whole.

And although death wasn’t the core premise of BoJack Horseman, it was always an ingredient. The opening credits always culminate in BoJack, in the midst of a wild bender, seeming to drown in the pool of his ritzy estate, overseen by his shocked friends, whose numbers dwindled over the years. But just as the opening credits always moved past that dry and gruesome image to reveal BoJack still kicking, tanning on his patio, so too did the conclusion of the show.

The penultimate BoJack installment, “The View From Halfway Down”, invokes the doorway imagery in much bleaker fashion than The Good Place did. Yes, they both have doorways, and yes, by entering the doorway, you essentially end your life. But The Good Place, in some of its final moments, shows us the happy version of walking through that doorway: Eleanor’s body evaporates and seems to turn into twinkling lights that can inspire others to do a bit of good on Earth. In BoJack, when our title character hallucinates himself in a purgatorial state with a group of side characters who are long since dead, entering the doorway simply means the end, period. As BoJack’s old comedy partner Herb Kazzaz (Stanley Tucci) says with finality, “This is it.” 

BoJack, though, doesn’t find out if that’s true. To some viewers, it may seem like a natural conclusion that BoJack is so unable to outrun his past behaviors that he dies trying. The final stretch of episodes pick up as BoJack has seemingly succeeded at reinventing himself one last time, teaching acting at Wesleyan, only to learn that two Hollywood Reporter journalists are trying to unearth the grim circumstances of the death of BoJack’s old co-star Sarah Lynn, a death that BoJack inadvertently caused. BoJack has a final bender after his bad behavior is fully published, leading him to drown in that fabled pool of his, a la Sunset Boulevard

But the final twist is that BoJack is discovered by the new tenants of what used to be his house, and he winds up in jail for breaking and entering. The last episode, “Nice While It Lasted”, takes place at the wedding of BoJack’s agent and oldest friend, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), as BoJack interacts one last time with each of the regular characters on the show. To have BoJack die would almost be too easy, because it would let him off the hook. His perception, as he describes to Diane in the last scene: “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” But Diane’s response is where the show’s allegiances truly lie: “Maybe life’s a bitch, and then you keep on living.”

Keep On Living

The Good Place didn’t subscribe to either of those theories, at least not in full. Yes, life may be a bitch, but you do keep on living. And when you die, there’s room to improve yourself to the point where you’re the best possible person any of us could be. One of the other main characters on The Good Place, Tahani Al-Jamil, elects to stay in the afterlife as an architect, but that’s only after she achieves every item on her bucket list, including becoming so good at woodworking that Nick Offerman tells her he has nothing left to teach her. (Because…well, sure, why not.) 

BoJack Horseman, on the other hand, had a warier take on humanity than The Good Place. There would always be room for self-improvement and change, but only so much, and often at the sacrifice of the darkness in your life that you’ve accrued. Diane always wanted to be seen as a more thoughtful writer, but in the last season, she accepts that it’s OK to write something sillier and fluffier if it’ll make people, especially young women, happy. BoJack has become a somewhat better person thanks to his time in prison, but who’s to say that he wouldn’t backslide one more time after he’s let out? (And, if you’re a more conspiracy-theory-inclined viewer, who’s to say that the last episode really happened, and that BoJack is even alive?)

Whatever the case is, BoJack Horseman went to darker places than The Good Place ever could (or ever would, as the very title of the show implies something sunny and happy). That either of these shows existed, and that they were essentially able to run their full course with little creative interference, is a genuine miracle. Schur has noted that after Parks and Recreation, NBC basically gave him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. It’s hard to imagine The Good Place existing in any other reality. And Bob-Waksberg may well have found a home for his show at the right time, when Netflix was more amenable to renewing shows than they are now. 

In the end, BoJack Horseman had both a better series finale and a better overall creative arc than The Good Place did. (It also helps that, at least to this writer, BoJack managed to be a much funnier show, all the way up to the darker final episodes.) These shows looked death in the eye, and while neither looked away, they also approached the weightiest of subjects in different ways. BoJack refused to let its characters off the hook. The Good Place never wanted to keep its characters on the hook for too long. Neither approach is automatically wrong or right. But one of them is more satisfying in the long run.

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