The Best Thing on TV This Year Was: 'The Good Place'

The philosophical comedy’s 35th episode reminds us that happiness is written between the lines.

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Dec 17 2018, 11:27pm

Photo Courtesy of NBC.

The unseen presence of one character has haunted The Good Place from the beginning, lingering like one of Bad Janet’s legendary farts since the very first moments of the very first episode: Doug Forcett.

As we all know — at three seasons and 35 episodes in — the afterlife hinges on a cumulative point system, with good deeds adding to an individual's point total and bad or selfish deeds subtracting. People with high enough point totals enter The Good Place, while those who don't make the cut do the whole burn-for-eternity thing down in The Bad Place. Despite all the twists, developments, reveals, and red herrings of the uniquely sharp and wacky sitcom, one constant has remained: that only one mortal has figured out the system, and he did it while on a mushroom trip back in 1972.

“Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By” opens with the song of the same name by the Mamas and the Papas’ “Mama” Cass Elliott, itself a 70s artifact that portends something darker than its sunny melody suggests — that life is short, and if we’re not careful, we’ll screw it up. We watch as some as-yet-unnamed character tends to a series of mundane tasks, his face hidden from view. But there’s something familiar about that grizzled-blond shock of hair we see only from behind. It belongs to someone we know. Turns out that’s doubly true, as the head we’re looking at is that of legendary comedic actor Michael McKean in character as the aforementioned Forcett, now several decades older and committed to obtaining the requisite number of Good Place points.

The Good Place
Photo credit: NBC

Forcett, living a spartan life of seclusion in Western Canada, is visited by immortal beings Michael (Ted Danson) and Janet (D'Arcy Carden). The pair is posing as Calgary Times Examiner reporter Michael Scoop and his photographer sister Janet Scoop in a surreptitious attempt to get close to the man who figured it all out. Michael and Janet view Forcett like a celebrity, and why shouldn’t they? Despite the fact that his tripping buddy Randy had a much more stereotypical magic-mushroom experience (he hallucinated that “everything was made of ears”), Doug somehow got the whole afterlife thing 92 percent correct.

But, like every chapter of The Good Place, “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By” is a Trojan horse — a Simpsons-indebted package of butt jokes and sight gags sneaking a philosophical message into our brains. And this time, the message is a critique of utilitarianism. According to utilitarian philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and a whole slew of other dead guys with dorky haircuts, the proper way to live is by maximizing one’s impact on the greater good. Makes sense, right? Be the best you can be at all times, help your fellow man (and sometimes animals) at all costs, and maybe you’ll be rewarded.

But as we quickly learn, Doug Forcett’s way of life is a miserable one. He grows radishes and lentils. He has 71 adopted dogs and wolves. ("I've been mauled several times!") An adolescent local sociopath named Raymond comes by Doug’s house to abuse and take advantage of the 68-year-old pacifist, who acquiesces to every command. Doug holds funerals for snails. He even recycles his own urine to use as drinking water. “One man's waste is another man's water,” Doug proudly surmises. “And both men are me!” He has become what’s known as a “happiness pump” — a human who lives only to serve others, no matter the impact on his own wellbeing.

The point is that, of course, if we obsess over caring for other people with no concern for self-care, we hollow out our existence and all end up miserable. For thoughtful, caring people, it might seem counterintuitive in an era marked by horrifying nationalism and xenophobia to think about ourselves. But as usual, The Good Place’s takeaway is more complex than that. The lesson of this particularly exceptional episode of television is that if we can’t love ourselves, how the hell are we supposed to love and serve one another? And if we’re only doing good deeds as a means of chasing a reward, are we not ultimately behaving selfishly after all?

“Just look, my friend,” Cass Elliott sang. “There's happiness in living somewhere between broke and being free.”

Part of what makes The Good Place an impactful show is that it uses comedy to remind us that our duty, as good people, is to help others. But our duty is also to ourselves. Doug Forcett may have gotten it 92 percent right, but the last 8 percent is written between the lines — don’t let the good life pass you by.

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