This review contains spoilers.
2.13 Somewhere Else
There’s a fascinating page on Wikipedia that I found once and have never been able to find again. Let me know if you come across it because I’ve been searching for years. It’s like it was a magical Wikipedia Room of Requirement that appeared when I needed it most then disappeared forever.
It was a page that featured a graph with information about the Gospels of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
This graph highlighted all of the inconsistencies and changes in the Gospels from every different version and translation of the Bible. There are dozens of versions of the Bible like the World English Bible, Quaker Bible, many versions of the King James bible and so on and each version’s Gospels contain multitudes of similarities and differences from version to version.
There is one concept, however, that exists in every Gospel across every single translation of said Gospel. The concept of The Great Commandment.
Matthew: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Mark: “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”
Luke: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.”
John: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
I’m not a religious person but I am a person. And I know all the various challenges that come along with being a person. Love is hard. Loving one’s self is even harder. And should one be lucky enough to love one’s self, loving others just as much seems impossible.
It’s hard to do but the secret to a happy fulfilling life couldn’t be simple or more clearly enunciated: love each other. The Gospels don’t stutter. They say it four god damn times in almost identical ways across dozens of interpretations and translations. The rest of the Bible says it countless more times. And that annoying little voice in the back of our heads almost never stops saying it – even when we’re too distracted to hear it.
Still, it’s the hardest part about being a human being. Knowing the answer to it all and lacking any of the necessary tools to see it through.
Anywho, welcome to this review of an episode of a half-hour sitcom on network television.
If my Biblical soliloquy didn’t give it away, this is yet another fantastic, game-changing, funny, and above-all profound finale for The Good Place.
Somewhere Else is about our humans (well, just one of them for now) being placed into yet another Skinner box of experimentation to find that every elusive answer. How to be good, how to love one another, and in the process how to live forever like that book is always talking about.
It’s a testament to how bursting full of ideas and warmth Somewhere Else is that it wastes absolutely no time in getting into the action. The finale doesn’t even let Michael catch his breath from traveling through a ceaseless void to the judge’s quarters before he is advocating for his new human friends. “The premise of our system is that a person’s score during their time on Earth is final and inarguable,” he tells Gen. “But because of my accidental experiment. These four humans got better after they died. That’s not supposed to happen.”
Over and over again, for centuries even, Michael watched as they got more thoughtful, more generous, more selfless. Michael doesn’t fully understand why this happened and doesn’t pretend to. But he knows he saw it happen. And the fact that it did, has enormous implications.
“If I’m right. The system by which we judge humans is so fundamentally flawed and unreasonable that hundreds of millions of people have wrongly been condemned to an eternity of torture.”
Gen is delighted to hear this. So she agrees to come up with some sort of plan to further test the humans. While the humans wait on yet another judgment, Jason takes stock of what a strange time it’s been.
“This has been one of the craziest years of my life,” Jason says.
“One of?” Chidi says.
“I don’t know what I would do if one more insane thing happened.”
“Hi Jason. I love you,” Janet says, appearing suddenly.
It’s an unexpected, sweet moment and one that Jason responds to warmly. It also finally makes Chidi realize that it’s time to turn the garbage disposal in his brain off and give the fork spinning around it a rest.
He kisses Eleanor.
The Good Place telling us point blank that Eleanor and Chidi have fallen in love before and will likely do it again – and then making that inevitable moment seem equal parts unexpected and satisfying is a remarkable trick.
Eleanor is suitably surprised. “Hot diggity dog!” She exclaims, before adding “Oh no! Now the thing I said after we kissed will always be ‘hot diggity dog.”
Of course, that’s not the first time Eleanor and Chidi have kissed. But that’s the benefit of living 802 times. Multiple first kisses.
Gen and Michael return from their deliberations to give the humans an update. She wants to send each human to their own Medium Place for awhile, say one month to one million years while she and Michael hash this out further. That’s unacceptable to Eleanor, however, as Chidi just laid one on her (“You two kissed? Hot diggity dog!” Michael says).
Still, Gen can’t think of a way to prove that the humans didn’t just improve because they knew there might be a reward at the end of the experiment. She needs proof that Eleanor and company are capable of improving on their own.
So much like season one’s finale, Michael tries out one more “gambit.”
The “twist” in “Somewhere Else” isn’t as gobsmackingly unexpected and insane as the twist in Michael’s Gambit because few things are. I even saw something kind of close to it coming, based on Michael’s research in Best Self revealing that the only way to get to the Good Place is to be a good person on Earth. Still, I didn’t expect this to happen so soon. Nor did I expect it to be in the context of being yet another experiment between Michael and an omniscient judge.
With a snap of Gen’s finger, the humans are returned to Earth. Eleanor is right back in that grocery store parking lot, yelling at an environmentalist and leaning over to retrieve her spilt bottle of Skinny Girl martini mix. Though instead of being pushed into a truck by a row of shopping carts this time, a familiar white-haired figure pushes her out of the way. Eleanor returns home to her two awful roommates and realizes that this near-death experience makes her want to be a better person.
So she tries to be exactly that.
“My name is Eleanor Shellstrop and I think I might be a monster,” she posts to Facebook. Then she begins cleaning up her act. She quits her job at the predatory call center. She apologizes to the environmentalist. Then she gets a job at the environmentalist agency! She wakes up early for things. She’s a model employee. She cleans up other people’s trash. She briefly considers vegetarianism.
Everything is great! Back in the judge’s quarters, Michael and Janet are poring over ticker tape of Eleanor’s “statistics with smiles on her face.
Then the backslide begins. Being honest with her old roommate about destroying her dress costs her a friend and her living situation. Leaving a note on a car that she clipped leads to a lawsuit. She stops going to work. And then in the final act of surrender, she attends a concert for Taylor Swift reggae cover band: Taylor Spliff.
That’s rock bottom. Being nice is difficult and it seemingly gets you nowhere. Again, here is a curious species that knows what the ‘correct’ answer is for how to live, yet somehow lacks the agency or motivation to properly pull it off.
Michael is despondent but he knows exactly what Eleanor needs to get back on track.
Michael Schur did it, the absolute madman! He actually put Ted Danson back behind the bar. And it’s everything that Eleanor needed. Hell, it’s everything that we needed.
I’ve never watched an episode of Cheers. So seeing Ted Danson behind a bar, rag slung over his shoulder was exciting for me but not in the profound way that I suspect it was for many TV watchers. It’s something that Schur, Ted Danson’s biggest fan, must have dreamed of and envisioned for his whole career. It’s a testament to his skill and restraint that he waited for the perfect moment in The Good Place’s history to deploy it.
Ted Danson as a reformed demon behind a bar, telling our heroine everything she needed to hear is profound because it borrows from Cheers own profundity. Cheers was a mere sitcom but it communicated an idea much larger than we came to expect from our televisions at the time (or so I understand as a non-watcher).
We all want to go to the bar where everyone wants to know our name. Sitcoms, silly and seemingly as inconsequential as they are, sometimes understand a basic human need as well as any other art form. The best sitcoms understand our need for a community, our need for a “true north” of friends and family. It’s a lesson that Schur internalised from Cheers and then brought to superb ‘hang out’ or ‘happy place’ comedies like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
And in that way, a simple sitcom can become profound. Because what is a shorter shortcut to the Great Commandment than experiencing the warmth of other human beings? Even if it is through the much lesser warmth of a TV screen?
The Good Place is far more complicated and ambitious than Cheers or any other of those shows. But with Danson behind the bar again it reveals that the sentiment it’s trying to impart remains the same: together good, alone bad. Or “live together, die alone” as another show that was influential to The Good Place liked to say.
Michael listens to Eleanor’s drunken woes (kudos to Kristen Bell for pulling off this touching moment while acting a drunken mess. She carries a lot of weight in this episode and rises to the challenge beautifully). He tells her about “moral desserts” – the idea that we only do good things because there could be a reward at the end. That’s all fine and good, but it won’t quiet the nagging voice in the back of your head to be better.
The real question we should be asking ourselves, Michael says is “what do we owe to each other?”
What do we owe to each other? It’s a question that echoes around drunk Eleanor’s head and when she wakes up she takes the first step any of us would. She Googles it. That leads her to a YouTube video of a keynote speech on ethics that Professor Chidi Anagonye is giving (in shockingly good English for a guy whose native language is supposedly French but I digress).
She watches the whole video series, riveted. Then she buys a plane ticket to Australia, finds his university and knocks on his door.
“Hi. My name is Eleanor Shellstrop. Can we talk?” she says.
Somewhere Else is a wonderful, deeply empathetic episode of television. What began as a screwball comedy about a simple case of celestial mistaken identity has now blossomed into a wonderful, sensitive exploration of an important concept: how to be good.
The Gospels made the answer pretty clear thousands of years ago. Shows like Cheers and Lost forwarded the same argument from the Gospels in their own weird way more recently.
Now, The Good Place, two seasons in, has stepped up to the plate and articulated how to be good in a way Jesus, Damon Lindelof, and even Sam Malone could only dream of in the form of Chidi’s closing argument: “simply put: we are not in this alone.”
Or in other words: love each other, you fat dinks.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, The Burrito, here.