Critics' Conversation: Saying Goodbye to 'The Good Place' and 'BoJack Horseman'

The Good Place_BoJack Horseman_Split - Publicity - H 2020
Colleen Hayes/NBC; Courtesy of Netflix

Daniel Fienberg: Many of the best shows in the Peak TV era come in seemingly familiar packages — prestige literary adaptations, expensive costume dramas, comedies so serious they might as well be dramas. (Inkoo Kang: Or, in the words of BoJack Horseman, “Sad is the new fun!”)

What brings us together today is to discuss the ending of two of the most unlikely great shows of the past decade, namely a streaming comedy that used a talking horse as, well, a Trojan horse for a meditation on redemption, second chances and personal demons, and a network sitcom that was basically a hangout comedy, if the characters were doing their hanging out in the afterlife.

Before we continue, a warning that this conversation will directly discuss the finale of NBC's The Good Place, which aired on Jan. 30, but we'll mostly tiptoe around spoilers for the Bojack Horseman final season, which premiered today.

Inkoo, these two finales represent perhaps my favorite sort of TV finale, where I didn't require any concrete answers or resolutions to any long-term mysteries, so the shows could just … end, however their respective creators wanted them to.

Let's start with The Good Place and the broad questions: Did you have particular "needs" from this finale and did "Wherever You're Ready" work for you as a sendoff?

Inkoo Kang: BoJack and The Good Place may not have a lot outwardly in common, but they’re both part of an emerging staple in the prestige-comedy category: the self-improvement sitcom. Both shows feature wonderfully specific (and strange) characters and are leavened by a grand silliness, but the true raison d’etre for both shows seems to be the theme of how to become a better person (and what are the things that get in the way).

I loved The Good Place’s penultimate, deliriously smart “This is the problem with our concept of heaven” episode, so I had high expectations for the finale. But I thought it was a better sendoff for the characters we’d gotten to know than a resonant philosophy for a happy (after)life. The decision to give the characters the choice when to terminate their consciousnesses was an unexpectedly dark but thoughtful formula for existential satisfaction and satiety. But I think that also only applies to young, single people who were only craving to love and to consume who died in the prime of their lives. As The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum noted on Twitter, none of our fab four thought children might provide another facet of meaning to their afterlife? And what about people who thought 90 or so years on Earth was plenty? (I also didn’t think that a pathologically insecure person like Tahani could ever be fully reassured. To cross over for a sec, couldn’t you see a brooding BoJack groaning about how perfect everything is and how he’s the only one who can’t be happy for 10,000 Bearimies?) I guess I wish The Good Place’s Good Place didn’t look and feel so much like the Cheesecake Factory: When you’ve had all you can take, you’re done.

The romances on The Good Place were always the show’s weakest hooks, so I also wish the finale hadn’t laid most of its emotional fulcrum on Jason/Janet and Chidi/Eleanor. What about you, Dan?

DF: I'm definitely inclined to agree that I never needed the coupling plotlines as much as The Good Place felt I did, though having Chidi and Eleanor as soulmates or whatever paid off very nicely and emotionally at the end of "The Answer." I'd argue that with the finale, it wasn't so much about achieving happiness in a preordained couple and more about finding happiness through any variety of means — self-improvement, altruism, travel, garbage books, whatever — and being able to share it until you didn't want to anymore and being cool with that. It was half-Cheers finale — with the Good Place as the bar they were leaving one at a time before turning off the lights — and half an inversion of No Exit, only heaven is other people instead of hell? And heaven isn't other people forever, just other people for as long as you want them? Crossing over for a second, can I say how outraged I am that one of the best final season episodes of BoJack is essentially a No Exit takeoff, but it isn't called "Bo[Jack] Exit"?

If I was being annoyed by anything in the finale, it was the periodic reminders of how purposeless the early part of the season was. The show was so lovely when it was Michael/Eleanor/Tahani/Chidi/Jason/Janet, and we spent weeks and weeks with John the Gossip Columnist and Brent the Douche? Come on! My Twitter feed said everybody was crying at the finale. Did you shed a tear?

IK: What was there to cry about? I’m the world’s happiest crier when it comes to movies and TV shows, but I jumped off the Eleanor/Chidi train in season one (Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper have little romantic chemistry, sorry), and I didn’t quite believe that Eleanor’s ideal afterlife was to be a philosophy groupie for all of eternity. Love and marriage (which, for all intents and purposes, Eleanor and Chidi had) require sacrifice, but Eleanor’s domestication gave me awful flashbacks to April’s domestication in the Parks and Recreation finale — another Michael Schur project whose ending didn’t quite satisfy me.

DF: Eleanor still got to have periodic dinners with her trashy friends after they died! So that's a happy ending, too? I don't think I cried either, but there were lots of things that produced little waves of emotional catharsis for me. Jason essentially becoming a monk while he waited for one last interaction with Janet? Sweet! Eleanor's reaction to Chidi's koan about the wave? I thought that was probably Kristen Bell's best acting moment in the series, all playing nearly wordlessly against a fake sunset. Michael's amusement and joy at doing Human Things and eventually learning the guitar from Mary Steenburgen? That was probably the closest I actually came to crying, because while I don't ship Eleanor/Chidi or Janet/Jason, I sure as heck ship Ted/Mary. Team DanBurgen forever.

And then the finale was full of little things I liked, from Maya Rudolph wearing an East Dillon Lions shirt and getting outraged by Carrie Coon's lack of Leftovers recognition to the serving panda to the myriad entries on Tahani's to-do list to a good Gardner Minshew joke.

Before we transition to BoJack, I guess I have two questions: What's your big-picture takeaway on The Good Place and its legacy? And was Tahani learning woodworking from Ron Swanson or from Nick Offerman?

IK: A world in which Ron Swanson would find Tahani Al-Jamil bearable: Now that’s the Good Place!

After the first season, The Good Place was a show that I admired more than I viscerally enjoyed — I think its vibe is a bit too Cool TA for my tastes. But there’s so much to admire! Michael Schur stretched the limits of the network comedy by offering a Philosophy 101 class within a sitcom format while resetting the stakes of the show every season. The Good Place managed to feel extremely timely, due to its impeccable pop-culture jokes, while giving us timeless settings and scenarios (like everyone hopping into Janet) that felt refreshingly outside our earthly hellscape.

With network fare getting increasingly stale, will there ever be a successor to The Good Place? I’m not sure, but I hope these are the show’s legacies: More original characters like Janet (whose praises as a creation I’ve sung before), and more chances on newcomers like D’Arcy Carden and Manny Jacinto, who to me rivaled veterans Kristen Bell and Ted Danson in the Why in the World Haven’t They Won a Million Awards for Their Work Yet? category.

DF: So that means you're saying it was Ron Swanson? I'm saying it was Nick Offerman, because Nick Offerman seems capable of finding anybody bearable as long as woodworking is involved.

I'm not sure when we're getting another broadcast comedy as ambitious as The Good Place, but I'm barely sure how we got this one, much less four seasons of it. I'm also not sure how much philosophy it actually taught anybody, but I think it probably planted enough seeds in re: how to live an ethical life and what it means to be "good," or what it means to at least want to aspire to be good. It was, like most Schur shows, fundamentally optimistic, though maybe there's also something pessimistic about the idea that the process of self-improvement can require countless bearimies to get right, when most of us only consciously get one?

That's probably the tough lesson of BoJack Horseman. The equine main character doesn't necessarily want to hurt people or hurt himself, but he's trapped, ironically, by his humanity. I guess that answers the "More horse than a man or more man than a horse" question? So every step he takes forward is followed by a step backward and, as the show observes in its final season, the very idea of "hitting rock bottom" and being able to build up from there is simplistic. Maybe with thousands of bearimies, BoJack would get things right, but I suspect he'd mostly just find new ways to hit rock bottom. I watched these last eight episodes and was occasionally struck by how sad and occasionally depressing Raphael Bob-Waksberg and company made them. But that's what the show was, and while these last episodes could have feigned hollow optimism just to pander to viewers, that wouldn't have been authentic. What'd you think of these last episodes of BoJack?

IK: Few shows have spoken to me as much as BoJack has, and I would happily argue that it’s one of the best shows of the decade, if not the history of the medium. And yet I can’t help asking: Did it go on for just a tad too long? The first half of the final season was my least favorite since the show’s shaky first year, even though it was necessary table-setting for these final eight episodes. I don’t think the show’s had anything substantially new to say about how to live with depression/addiction/trauma/damage/the ineradicable sense that the best part of your life was long ago and you’ll never get anything remotely that good ever again (so you just have to keep on trying) since season two, but I’d rather spend more time with Diane, Princess Carolyn, Mr. Peanutbutter, and even BoJack than pretty much any other character out there. (Sorry, Todd! I wish I could ever remember which shenanigan you were up to!)

But BoJack is also resonant — often painfully so — because all the characters are caught up in systems where certain types of people (straight white guys, which our equine protagonist is coded as) get to fail up forever because fame and the romance of the comeback (again, for middle-aged white dudes mostly) work in their favor. Meanwhile, the victims of the abusers within those systems — perhaps most poignantly Gina, the actress (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) who gets PTSD after BoJack attacks her on set and is labeled “difficult” thereafter — suffer in silence with little to no recourse. It’s a nihilistic view of the industry that, despite the cartoon animal-human hybrids, feels more candid than pretty much any other depiction of Hollywood.

All of which is to say: Yes, I thought these (overdue) final episodes were fantastic. We’ve been waiting for six years for BoJack to get his comeuppance, and even if he does, maybe he doesn’t get it as bad as pretty much anyone else would. I don’t want to praise BoJack by dinging The Good Place, but I’d be remiss in failing to note that the mostly platonic relationship between BoJack and Diane has been the unforced heart of the series, and I’m so glad the show gave them that due.

DF: I think there's a cliched version of the show where, based on the pilot, the entire arc of the series would be BoJack improving himself as a means to finally be "healthy" or "good" enough to have a relationship with Diane, and I don't think it's at all a spoiler to say that if you started these last episodes still believing that's where the show was going, you're watching it wrong.

These last episodes are very focused on the core cast, and I guess I wouldn't have minded a few more series-spanning cameos, but I can also acknowledge that would have been pandering. Instead, we're here for BoJack to face some consequences, for Diane to face her creative demons, for Todd to face his family, for Caroline to face the challenges of her chosen industry, etc. At their best, these episodes do that beautifully and sadly, without sacrificing pause-the-episode in-jokes aplenty (not to be confused with Mr. Peanutbutter's fiancée, Pickles Aplenty).

To me, BoJack ends its run as Netflix's best-ever show by a pretty wide margin. I can accept the argument that Orange Is the New Black might be a more important show for the streamer and maybe for the industry, but BoJack is Netflix's peak. So kudos to Bob-Waksberg, to Lisa Hanawalt, to Will Arnett. This is a show that stands as a remarkable whole and also features multiple stand-out, pantheon episodes.

IK: For a show that’s so cynical about sitcoms — particularly the hokey, spongey, family-friendly dreck of yore — BoJack certainly managed to put its own spin on the genre of the Very Special Episode. “The View From Halfway Down,” the series’ penultimate episode and the final one of these genre-pushing tragedies, didn’t quite measure up to “Time’s Arrow” or “Free Churro” (or my personal favorite, “Fish Out of Water”), but I’m here anytime the BoJack team wants to go dreamy on me. (PSA: If you want more, watch Raphael Bob-Waksberg and BoJack writer Kate Purdy’s excellent series Undone on Amazon!)

The continued niche-ification of television and #content assures me that there’s more ultra-detailed commentary on the media and entertainment industries, as well as railings against corporate America and serious doubts about pop feminism, in store. But taking a baton from 30 Rock, BoJack took these on with near unparalleled smarts, outrage and a necessary sense of despair, all combined with the recognition that it’s better to contribute something to the world than nothing at all.

Perhaps that’s why it made me so, so happy that Diane finds a way out of her self-imposed misery and to be creative that doesn’t involve the self-exploitation of her pain. (Small spoiler: I was also over the moon about Diane’s anti-depressant-induced weight gain. How perfectly honest.) The casting of Alison Brie as Diane’s voice — which Bob-Waksberg has said he wouldn’t repeat if given the chance — remains a lingering niggle, as does her family’s somewhat improbable backstory, but I suspect she’s become a fan favorite, especially in my corner of depressed Asian America, because she suffers from so many of the difficulties that BoJack does without any of his attendant advantages and comforts, and there isn’t really any other character like her on still-diversifying television. The world is grossly unfair, so unfair that to be content within it frequently feels wrong, but that doesn’t mean that striving to be even unhappier than you already are is worthwhile, let alone noble or inherently creatively fertile. You can’t choose to be happy, but you don’t have to choose to be unhappy.

Feels simple, but it can be the hardest lesson in the world.