This entire article is a spoiler alert. If you haven’t watched this show and plan to, stop reading now!
As a person who was pretty obsessed with my mortality for most of my childhood, NBC’s “The Good Place,” which just ended, was a fascinating and enjoyable show. As far as I know, there has never been another program like this on TV: a storyline built on the afterlife and the philosophical questions that surround it. The characters (Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason) all come to the show dead, thinking they have made it to The Good Place (a campy version of heaven) where everything seems idyllic. But at the end of the first season, they discover that they are in fact in The Bad Place and that demons have been torturing them the whole time with different forms of psychological manipulation.
The group must then go through all sorts of trials and tribulations, including escaping the traditional (physical) torture in The Bad Place, relive their lives on earth to see if they end up as better people, and convince “The Judge” (this character watches television and has crushes on TV stars – she does not have any resemblance to an all-powerful God) to recalibrate the entire selection process of Good and Bad Place inhabitants. They believe up until now, it has been unfair.
By the final episode of Season 4 – the series finale – the group finally reaches the ACTUAL Good Place, and what they discover is every physical enjoyment the heart and mind could conjure up. There are milkshakes made out of stardust (somehow this is enjoyable). You can hop around to all your favorite European cities and fly there on a monkey, if that tickles your fancy. The physical enjoyment available is literally infinite. But what the group quickly discovers is that even the greatest enjoyment at every moment (if you’re stuck doing this for all of ETERNITY) will get kind of boring. In fact, the group realizes that the people in the actual Good Place are essentially numb after doing nothing but physical pleasure for eternity.
Now, when I was in the midst of my eight-year existential crisis (which was brought on by a triple murder in my town when I was eight-years-old), I would contemplate heaven, and I came to a similar realization to the characters in the show. Even if heaven is the most enjoyable thing EVER, won’t you get bored of it eventually? The thought of ceasing to exist (I wasn’t sure if there even WAS an afterlife) or existing someplace amazing (forever!) both drove me crazy and made me feel ill.
The characters in the show come up with a plan to alleviate the problem of pleasure for eternity – they ask to stop existing. They get permission to die. In heaven. They explain that knowing that the enjoyment will come to an end helps give the pleasure more perspective. It forces them to appreciate what they have before it’s gone. I agree with that concept. And then one by one, each character elects to stop existing, returning himself to the universe. DARK!
At one point, before Chidi commits suicide (Chidi and Eleanor become a couple halfway through the show), he explains death to Eleanor in an effort to comfort her. All along he has been leaning on European philosophers to teach Eleanor morality, but he tells her if you want philosophy on death, you have to go East. Then he starts quoting Buddhism.
As I heard this line, I lamented that the creator of the show, Michael Schur, who has a Jewish background, didn’t look to Jewish wisdom for some meaningful answers too. While Schur apparently did research a range of religions and philosophies for the show, he stays FAR away from religion during the entire series, and sums up Judaism in an interview as having “a lot of rules for behavior.” That’s true, but we also have a lot of wisdom.
The Buddhist wisdom which Chidi quotes about death is that life is like a wave in an ocean, and after the wave crashes, it disappears and joins back into the ocean. As I heard this line I was thinking, “You are SOOO close!”
In the actual Good Place, heaven is not much more than hedonism. And what this show got 100% correct is that hedonism gets old very quickly. While delicious food is the most pleasurable thing we could imagine when we are ravenous, once we are satiated, one extra bite of food could make us vomit. When it comes to matters of physical pleasure, we simply have a limit, and if we overdo it, we go from ecstasy to queasy. Which is why a life of hedonism will always leave a person coming up short. Eventually, the person will go numb, like all the characters on the show do.
While having an end does give life more perspective, what gives life meaning is when we come to embody attributes that are beyond the physical: kindness, compassion, truth, generosity. The characters in this show make a metamorphosis to live up to these ideals.
But here’s what the show misses: these attributes are Godly traits, and when we experience them (performed in a healthy way), we do not feel overwhelmed by them. We do not tire of love from our beloved. The warmth that fills our hearts when those who are dear to us embrace us has no limit.
God is beyond time and space and His attributes do not sicken us when we fill ourselves with them. The Jewish idea of Heaven (which I wish the show got to, because it ends on a rather bleak and terrifying note) is basking in this Divine Light in a realm that exists beyond time and space. The parable of the wave returning to the ocean hints to this idea, but doesn’t quite get there, because what is the ocean? The show doesn’t tell us. As far as we know, it is simply an entity.
This is the important way Judaism differs from that message: Every human being is filled with a Divine spark, and when we die, we return to our Maker, Who is the source of all Light, all Love, and Everything.
(Click here to see our video about “The Jewish Afterlife.”)