Note: this post contains spoilers for all four seasons of The Good Place. If you haven’t watched the show but intend to, or think you’ll ever want to, and you don’t want to be spoilered, maybe give this one a miss.
Content note: death denial, ageism, television
Well, I finally got to see the end of NBC’s The Good Place. I’d expected that I would cry; I just hadn’t anticipated how much.
TGP ranks in my top ten TV shows I’ve ever seen, maybe even top five. It’s smart, funny, full of heart, and visually saturated, all things I look for in TV. It also fascinates me as a deathworker because it’s one of those places where US overcultural death denialism smacks right into US overcultural obsession with youth.
Those things are, of course, two sides of the same coin. Our obsession with youth may seem shallow, but it’s rooted in one of our oldest, deepest fears: the fear of death. For a lot of folks, that fear can manifest in avoidance of older folks, whom they feel too sharply remind them of their own mortality.
In some other afterlife-based fiction, older characters played by younger performers are said to have taken the appearance of when they were at their best in life. The ageism is obvious here, as well, reinforcing the notion that young = best. TGP does give us one instance of that in the finale, as we see afterlife hero Doug Forcett in the actual Good Place not as the exhausted 68-year-old we met in season 3 but as the young stoner whose image once hung in Michael’s office. But for the most part, we’re told, the characters were the ages they appear to be when they died, from Jason, age 27, to Brent, who’s described as “almost sixty” (although, for what it’s worth, Benjamin Koldyke, who played Brent, was only 51 when he joined the show). Yes, we see a plot-relevant reason for this in season 3 when the four original humans “un-die” and return to Earth. Having the characters actually be the ages they appear to be in the afterlife avoids the need for extensive age makeup or a second set of actors to play the characters’ older, living selves. Still, the casting choice forces us to face, however obliquely, a truth most folks don’t like to acknowledge: humans can, and do, die at any age.
Of course, all the deaths we know about in the show are cartoonish: hit by a truck while chasing a bottle of margarita mix across a parking lot; crushed by a giant statue, etc. No deaths by disease or violence in this Technicolor primetime afterlife, no siree! Cartoonish fates notwithstanding, the fact remains that these characters are dead – and at an age and under circumstances where they probably haven’t done much end-of-life planning (Jason Mendoza surely did not have an advance directive). At an age and under circumstances (that is, with no terminal diagnosis looming) where many of us haven’t done much end-of-life planning. And that’s something we have to sit with as we watch the show, even if we really don’t want to look at it too closely. (But know we probably should.)
The Good Place may look like a show about death, but ultimately, it’s really a show about life, and about how to live the best lives we can, right up until those lives end. Maybe no one else watched the zany antics of Team Cockroach, in either their messy lives or their messed-up afterlife, and thought, Yup, I could die at any time. It’s time to update my end-of-life documents. But I did. And now I’m telling you: you could die at any time. It’s time to update your end-of-life documents. Even Neil from Accounting would tell you that’s worth a point or two.