Spoilers for Bojack Horseman and the Good Place Follow
When the first half of the final season of The Good Place concluded last year, I wondered in my review whether the show’s writers would brilliantly redeem the seemingly muddled mess that the show had apparently become. Was it all an ingenious bait and switch?
Well, no. But happily, last year’s unsatisfying plot was summarily dropped. And the final half-season was much more satisfying, as our ragtag crew — Eleanor, Tahani, Jason and Chidi, along with the former demon, Michael — reformed Heaven and found their way, at last, to the real Good Place, and eternal bliss.
A secular show about Philosophy, not a religious show about Redemption
But here is the catch: The Good Place was a sitcom about Philosophy; whether it is possible through Philosophy to become “a better person”; and what that means, if anything.
Heaven is a religious concept, and this was never a show about religion. Indeed, when The Good Place’s Heavenly judges calculate a candidate’s worthiness, accepting Jesus or donning tefillin play no role. Nor do genuinely worthy religious activities such as working in a church soup kitchen, for example. I have not reviewed the entire show again to be sure, but I believe that religion was never mentioned as a means toward redemption or self-improvement, or in any context at all.
Do we even want an eternal Reward?
So while life after death is not necessarily a religious concept, the idea of eternal Reward is, and, except as a gag, actual Heaven really has no place in a show about secular Philosophy as a means of personal self-realization. For the show to end with our friends in Heaven forever made no sense.
So the Good Place writers fell back on the idea, expressed memorably in Natalie Babbitt’s kids’ novel Tuck Everlasting, Ricky Gervais’s Afterlife and elsewhere, that it is The End that makes us human and that makes life beautiful.
If that is the case, then even in Heaven, human beings would yearn for a way out. So in the final episode, most of the main characters willingly exited this mortal coil.
My colleague Alon Preiss has mused that, while death is terrible, it is probably preferable to eternal life on Earth, should science ever find a way to cure ageing. And, certainly, an eternity of this nonsense is not really an attractive idea.
And yet and yet and yet … ageing and an outer limit to human lifespan is not desirable or necessary, it is just the result of a cellular mutation. And what makes us human is not the yearning for an exit, but our obsessive efforts to stay alive on Earth, and our yearning for a supernatural continuation.
One can debate how long you or I would wish to live in Paradise. I think I would probably stay forever. But I have no doubt that The Good Place’s fun-loving Jason would have no problem finding an eternity of things to enjoy. That is one guy who would never walk through the doorway to oblivion.
So I enjoyed the show, but in the end I didn’t buy it.
Bojack Horseman grapples, still, with self-improvement
Bojack Horseman, which I really love, shares The Good Place’s big theme: can someone really improve and become a better person?
Most seasons of this show ended with a hint that the show’s titular washed up 90s TV star, and anthropomorphic horse, might indeed be on track to redemption. After teasing us with the idea that a final reckoning for Bojack might be in the offing, Season 6 finally copped out and settled into the same routine. In the penultimate episode, Bojack OD’s and dies. In the final episode, he’s revived, and by the end, Bojack is still standing, still working on self-improvement. The sins of the season have been mostly forgotten, his career isn’t wrecked. His new movie is doing well. Maybe he will be OK after all.
In the real world, and even in Bojack’s cartoon world, he would not be forgiven so quickly, or ever.
And we, the audience, should give up on him as well. His selfishness and his crimes are too extreme. A few seasons ago, remember, Bojack went on a suicidal heroin bender, and he cajoled a troubled young actress to join him. When she went into cardiac arrest, he abandoned her for a crucial seventeen minutes, and she died. He covered up the crime for years, but intrepid reporters revealed Bojack’s culpability to the public in the latest season, which led to his unrealistically brief fall from grace.
Strangely, Bojack Horsemen portrays his responsibility for the actress’s death as his personal rock bottom and an impetus for his potential self-improvement, rather than as an unforgivable, irredeemable crime.
What does it mean to become a better person?
Can any of us become “better people”? Well, human beings, like paramecia, can learn. I used to work at a huge law firm where a lot of senior lawyers screamed at everyone all the time. One guy, a senior associate – let’s call him “Harvey” – was particularly odious, a really gruesome fellow to work for. Eventually, he mellowed. I mentioned to a colleague that Harvey seemed to be working through his demons and becoming a better person. “The partners sat him down and told him to be nicer,” my colleague replied, “or they would fire him. So now he’s being nicer.”
Did that make him a “better person”?
Something else about Bojack is also a little bothersome. In real life, a guy like this would get more chances than the rest of us. He is rich, funny and charismatic, after all. That doesn’t mean he deserves these chances. Like the last season of The Good Place, the final season of Bojack Horseman was well-written and acted, and even satisfying. But some people are beyond redemption, and Bojack Horseman should have ended its run an episode sooner, its star in the hospital, flatlining.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead, which is available in trade paperback from your favorite local independent bookstore, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and on Kindle.
Photo by Josh Kahen, Unsplash.