This article contains spoilers for the second season finale of The Good Place.
Michael Schur is a wonderful genius. As a creator he has brought to life shows that quickly became my favorites. What he really nails, though, is people. On television today there are a lot of shows and a lot of characters living dysfunctional lives. These characters are interesting, but at the end of the day, the stories drain my spirit. They leave me entertained but lacking. What I look for in a story is something that reflects a little piece of what it means to be human and that leaves me asking questions.
The Good Place, while it could be a dark and harrowing tale about people getting what they deserve after a life not-well-lived, chose a different path. While the demons of the story talk about torture we don’t ever see it. “The Bad Place” is spoken of constantly but the brutality of it is left off-screen. That’s because the point of the show is not to explore the depths of human depravity and sin, but the heights that people can aspire to.
Take it a level deeper, and The Good Place really is revolutionary television. It would be easy enough for the main character, Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell), to be the primary focus. She was certainly the worst in terms of attitude upon dying and had perhaps the most to gain through her journey. But the writers decided to share the spotlight, and each member of the cast stepped up to the task of turning written word into believable, beautiful, character development.
“Now Katie…” I hear you say, “we’ve seen ensembles before sharing the spotlight.” True, I’m sure there are endless examples of whole ensembles growing together. But I think the point that The Good Place hits home better than any other ensemble on television is this: you can’t do it alone.
As a social worker, this kind of message on a highly regarded show is what I live for. Even though Michael’s goal was to use each of the characters to torture each other for all eternity his plan backfired. Why? Because he inadvertently created community and it is in a community where we find our true selves and can strive for something better.
The community was so compelling even Michael, demon extraordinaire, couldn’t resist the pull.
So fast forward to the finale. The team turned up on the Judge’s doorstep the episode before and tried to win their own ticket to the real Good Place through the tests she set out for them. Everyone but Eleanor failed and, as a team, they were going to be sent back to the Bad Place. Thanks to Michael, they were given another chance. He insisted that if they could change in the Bad Place then they could change if they were given a second chance at life.
But as we saw through the first half, they didn’t. Eleanor started out of the gate on her own and then crashed. Michael watched as any chance of redemption started to slip away until he realized one simple fact.
Eleanor needed Chidi.
More than Chidi, Eleanor needed her community. She could make life changes all she wanted on her own, but she was bound to fail from the outset because the people she continued to associate with didn’t challenge her. Instead, they enabled her to one extreme or the other: enabled her to be terrible or enabled her to be terrific.
What Chidi and the rest of Team Cockroach does is neither, or both, depending on how you look at it. Instead of enabling Eleanor’s terrible patterns or insisting she be terrific at all costs they accepted her. In a community, Eleanor learned that acceptance and confrontation can exist in the same space. She can be loved and challenged to change her behavior at the same time. Somehow, in the depths of the Bad Place, a group of messed up people with strong personalities provided the exact forces necessary to push each other to change.
That’s what community does, particularly when your community is stacked with people who are not like you.
And what The Good Place has taught us throughout the season, and hit home in the season finale, is that we are at our strongest when we have our friends. I’m excited for season three and the reunions that are bound to happen as Team Cockroach fights for a spot together in the Good Place.