The Good Place was a comedy television series created by Michael Schur that ran from 2016 to 2020 for four seasons. The show is about four humans who lived ... not the best lives on earth and now must face the consequences in the afterlife. Starring in the series we have: Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop, Ted Danson as afterlife "architect" Michael, William Jackson Harper as Chidi Anagonye, Jameela Jamil as Tahani Al-Jamil, D'Arcy Carden as Janet, and last but not least, Manny Jacinto as Jason Mendoza.
Though the show is heavily philosophic, covering the absurdities of both heaven and hell, the show is also quite a lot of fun. However, our blog focuses on the meaning of life, so what does the show have to do with meaning and purpose?
Starting in season 2, episode 3 - Janet, an omniscient being, spends one and a third milliseconds to determine her purpose, to which she states, my purpose is to make humans happy. This, naturally, leads into the follow-up episode entitled "Existential Crisis," which touches upon themes like immortality and how endings can bring meaning to life.
Chidi in the "Existential Crisis" episode theorizes that, If you live forever, then ethics don't matter to you, because, basically, there's no consequences for your actions (clearly, Chidi has never watched Highlander). This is in relation to Michael learning to be good, and why Michael, a 6,000 ft tall fire squid demon squeezed into a human skin suit, struggles so much with the concept of right and wrong. Chidi would continue emphasizing that they have to get Michael to first understand, That life has an end and, therefore, our actions have meaning. As you can probably guess, getting Michael to understand that he can die (or in demon terms, be retired), leads to Michael having an existential crisis—through which he will either pull through and life will continue, or he'll become an empty shell of a being and life will continue anyway (time for some Camus?). Michael's initial thoughts, Searching for meaning is philosophical suicide. How does anyone do anything When you understand the fleeting nature of existence? Easy, we just deal with it, eat a few cool ranch flavored babies along the way, and life goes on until we die. But not before going through the classic response to the midlife crisis—get a new car, a new girl, an earring, so on and so forth before returning to normalcy and acquiescence—meaning or no meaning, life will go on.
Then we get to season 3 and the humans are returned to earth for a second chance at proving that they can improve. But, they are not all in the same place, and Michael has to reassemble the team. In episode 1 of this season, Michael tells Jason, Look, I know this group of people who are also searching for meaning.
The only problem is that the group realizes that no matter how much they improve, become better people, they are still doomed to end up in the Bad Place. Because if you know about the point system to get into the Good Place, and that is your reason for improving, you cannot earn new points. Chidi, upon discovering this, tells his class:
I'm going to teach you the meaning of life. How do you like them apples? Now, over the last 2,5000 years, Western philosophers have formed three main theories on how to live an ethical life. Now, first off, there's virtue ethics. Aristotle believed that there were certain virtues of mind and character, like courage or generosity, and you should try to develop yourself in accordance with those virtues.
Next, there's consequentialism. The basis for judgment about whether something is right or wrong stems from the consequences of that action. How much utility or good did it accomplish versus how much pain or bad.
And finally, there's deontology. The school of thought that there are strict rules and duties that everyone must adhere to in a functioning society. Being ethical is simply identifying and obeying those duties and following those rules.
But here's the thing, my little chill babies, all three of those theories are hot, stinky cat dookie. The true meaning of life, the actual ethical system that you should all follow is nihilism. The world is empty. There is no point to anything and you're just gonna die. So, do whatever!
The team, aka, the "Soul Squad," decide to continue becoming better people despite the system, and also to help as many others as possible.
In episode 12 of season 3, Eleanor asks Janet the answer to "everything," after the love of her afterlife, Chidi, voluntarily decides to have his memory erased to save humanity. He'll forget everything he and Eleanor have ever experienced. Eleanor pleads with Janet, There has to meaning to existence, otherwise the universe is just made of pain and I don't like the thought of that. Janet has no real answers, stating the universe is just machinery fulfilling its cosmic design, and as she becomes more human, things make less and less sense. Though she does admit, what Eleanor and Chidi found, their love, was quite remarkable amidst the sea of chaos and pandemonium. A warm embrace from a loved one is sometimes the only solace we have in a cold, uncaring, mechanical universe.
Season 4, episode 5, Tahani complains to Eleanor that she wants to learn how to do something meaningful with her life, as all she is good at is throwing great parties (foreshadowing how Tahani would eventually become an architect like Michael).
Later in this season we also learn that life isn't just a puzzle to be solved once, and we're done, it is a puzzle that we have to wake up everyday to and solve again and again. Chidi would also raise the question of identity and self. After all, if he loved Eleanor in a previous "reboot," is that version of himself still himself? It is a great point. A point that is tackled also in the movie Memento. He has no obligation to fall in love with Eleanor again (though he would).
Eventually, the team discovers that the entire point system to get into the Good Place is forked. The world has become so complex, that even buying a tomato at the supermarket has a whole slew of negative consequences. Consequently, no one in hundreds of years has made it to the Good Place. The Judge, agreeing that the whole system is forked, says it is time to start over and wants to just reboot the entire universe—erasing all humanity. The team has other ideas, and with time running out, they devise a plan to rework the whole Good Place/Bad Place system.
You see, in the traditional system, humans earn points based on the lives they lived on earth. Earn enough points, and you earn a spot in the Good Place (heaven), where you can pretty much do anything you ever wanted to do for all eternity. The issue, as Hypatia of Alexandria points out, is that it gets very boring very quickly and there is no escape. What is there left to do when you have done everything there is to do? Conversely, if you do not earn enough points, you are tortured for all eternity in the Bad Place.
Michael builds upon his original idea of psychological torture (as opposed to the traditional system of physical torture). His system appeals to both those in the Good Place, and the legions of demons in the Bad Place—as apparently, hell also gets pretty boring after awhile. The demons can still psychologically torture people, but only to the extent to help make those being tortured into better individuals. Once the humans become good enough, earn enough points, those humans can then enter the Good Place. The idea here is simple. Everyone, at least under the right conditions, in the right environment, is redeemable—human nature is inherently good, but sometimes life just deals us a bad hand or we just need the right guidance—a nudge in the right direction.
In season 4, episode 11, Michael becomes upset because he's always had a job—even though at times he felt like Sisyphus rolling that damned rock up the hill, over and over again for all of eternity. For Michael, pushing that rock gave him purpose, and then some demon came along and just invented a better way of rolling that rock (torturing humans humanely and training other demons how to do it more efficiently). But not to worry, Michael would find his new purpose soon, being the architect of the Good Place. When Michael becomes the boss of the Good Place, and has to do an overhaul of the system, Eleanor reminds Michael of something she told him while he was going through his midlife crisis, 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. Eleanor also going on to say, The way to restore meaning to the people in the Good Place is to let them leave. To solve the issue of boredom, Michael devises a system where once you've done everything you ever wanted to do, and simply had enough of existence, you calmly walk through a door and you are no more.
In the final episode we see the real world philosopher Todd Gifford May make an appearance and his book is quoted, Mortality offers meaning to our lives and morality helps navigate that meaning. Professor May clarifies, Morality offers meaning to the events of our lives. What happens to the rest of the crew in the final episode? Well, after they've done everything they could ever have imagined doing, each individual reaches a certain inner peace. Slowly, one by one, Jason, Chidi, and Eleanor would find that inner peace on their own terms, and each would walk calmly through that door existing existence. Tahani, after spending as many meaningful days with her family as she can mentally take, decides to leave the Good Place and become an architect. Michael, really only has one thing left to do, having accomplished everything he set out to accomplish (and then some)—gives a go at being human.
The final episode was definitely a tearjerker, and the series took on a lot of big questions such as the meaning of life, immortality, archaic concepts of heaven/hell, and much more. It was a perfect ending to a great show. A must watch for anyone interested in philosophy, or just a good sitcom in general. With that said, does something have to end for it to have meaning? If something existed for all time, let's say the universe, or if you like, theoretical or not—God, heaven or hell, could those things not have meaning without having to have an ending?
Did you watch the series? What did you think? What did we miss? Comment below and let us know.