“The Good Place,” which ended a four-season run on NBC on Jan. 30, was a magically weird cocktail of sharp, funny writing (including outstanding food puns), messy and indelibly endearing characters, and a crash course in philosophy and ethics.
And while the show avoided most direct connections to organized religion, the series did provide enough Jewish food for thought to fill 26.1 Jeremy Bearimys (the show’s measurement of how time in the afterlife flows relative to time on Earth).
Note that this piece contains some spoilers for all four seasons — the first three of which you can watch right now on Netflix.
From its start, “The Good Place” was notable for reflecting life’s tendency to establish rules and then break them. Each season had its twists, reboots and game-changers, and visited eternal questions about the meaning of life and afterlife.
It challenged the concepts of good and evil, crime and punishment, hope and desperation. It redefined the concept of torture and evoked concepts of God as angel, demon, puppet master, petulant child or experimental scientist.
It elicited moral and ethical questions, introduced the non-philosophy-inclined to “the trolley problem” and argued whether people are responsible for the unintended consequences of their actions (like buying an organic tomato from a farm where the workers aren’t treated equitably).
Never before had an NBC sitcom made me feel like I wish I had a degree in moral philosophy.
And absent that particular academic training, the only lens through which I could view this show — and its finale — was my Jewish one.
The Jewish text known as Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) provides guidance about human interactions and behaviors — in other words, what we owe to each other.
How should one lead? “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.” How should one gain wisdom? “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” What is our communal responsibility, and how should we behave toward ourselves and others? “Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community, do not trust in yourself until the day of your death, do not judge not your fellow man until you have reached his place.”
At my yeshiva day school, we were told that in the afterlife, we’d get to study Talmud all day with the great rabbis; I secretly hoped my afterlife would be a place where I’d be able to catch my favorite TV shows whenever I wanted (which basically came true once Netflix started streaming).
As I got older and experienced loss — grandparents, friends, my mother — my hope for what comes after changed: clarity on life’s confusing moments, for sure, and television, always, but also a reunion with people I missed, a chance to reconcile unspoken words and right the complicated relationships that all humans have in our short lives.
As viewers, we yearned for this, too.
‘The Good Place’ was notable for reflecting life’s tendency to establish rules and then break them.
We saw Tahani’s reunion with her sister and parents, and Eleanor’s dinner with her friends and Chidi’s bestie; the blissful idiocy of Donkey Doug and Pillboi who pay tribute to Jason; and hear stories about how — over the course of however many Bearimys — our main characters have meaningful resolutions with the people in their lives.
Chidi gets the space to teach to and learn from the great philosophers he admired during his life (a philosophy class version of a beit midrash, perhaps) and Jason fulfills his less-intellectual lifelong dreams.
I’m hoping for an afterlife space somewhere between an endless philosophy/Talmud course and go-cart racing with monkeys.
Over its four seasons, “The Good Place” focused on the intertwined ideas of human responsibility and fixing the world. The main characters constantly challenged the status quo toward creating a more equitable system; their moral compulsion to make things better was the drive to achieve tikkun olam, or more accurately, tikkun olam haba (fixing the world to come).
After rejiggering the system by which souls are judged after they die, the show’s characters finally get into the Good Place, a paradise where all needs and desires are met.
But when anything is possible, people do everything, get bored, and there’s still endless time ahead.
After Michael invokes Eleanor’s observation that “every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re going to die, but that knowledge is what gives life meaning,” the team works out a new system: When people feel they’ve accomplished everything they wanted to, they can walk through a door and end their time in the universe.
As someone who is hopeful for afterlife reunion with lost friends and relatives, I decided the idea of reaching a moment when I’d give that up — or the idea that those lost loved ones might decide to leave me behind — is both incomprehensible and panic-inducing.
But permitting people to create their own endings restores the sense of mortality that provided meaning on Earth and rewards humans with free choice that many of them lacked in life.
The penultimate episode (likely unintentionally) played with the Jewish idea that we hold two simultaneous truths: the idea that the world is made just for us to enjoy and that we are but dust and ashes. This teaches us to be aware of our presence and function in this world, and to have the humility to understand that our time here is limited.
The series could have ended with the penultimate episode, an “everything is fine” episode that said the afterlife is about having enough time with the people you love.
But by showing us the departures of the characters, “The Good Place” team brought us to a more challenging emotional space, to think about the purpose of life and afterlife, about journeys and their endings and about the people we leave behind.
At the end, the show suggested, our essence converts to sparks that flow throughout the world. Should those sparks alight on the shoulder of another human, may our glow be for a blessing.