By Sabine Buhain
As January came to a close, so did a pair of popular, long-running television shows — namely NBC’s The Good Place and Netflix’s BoJack Horseman.
There was a stark contrast between the two endings of both series: where The Good Place discussed moral accountability in a lighthearted comedy, BoJack Horseman pulled no punches in its hard-hitting criticism of modern society’s lack thereof. While Schur delivers an existential story in middle-brow dramedy packaging, Bob-Waksberg finds his comic relief in topical jokes, black comedy, and the occasional tongue-twister.
However, in spite of their contrasts, both of these contemporary shows attempted to answer one important question: Can anyone be redeemed? In a world where ‘cancel culture’ is on the rise, it’s a question we find ourselves asking outside of fiction as well. I’m here to discuss the differences, similarities, and ultimately, the importance of what Schur and Bob-Waksberg have to say on this topical debate.
The following will contain major spoilers for the finales of The Good Place and BoJack Horseman, as well as content warnings for mentions of fictional addiction, sexual predation, and suicide.
The Idealism of The Good Place
Putting an end to four seasons and four years of runtime, The Good Place finally allows its quartet cast (“Team Cockroach”) a proper win. Having presented the flaws of the afterlife— particularly that it was too harsh a punishment to send many morally decent people to ‘The Bad Place’ for not being ethically excellent enough, while those lucky enough to have been raised decently may enjoy ‘The Good Place’—the team take it upon themselves to design a new system by which to judge Earth’s dearly departed.
Throughout the show, we see the main cast improve drastically in the afterlife, regardless of who they were when they were alive. Jason Mendoza, an impulsive criminal, becomes a surprisingly wise advisor to his friends in times of difficult decisions. Tahani Al-Jamil, an attention-seeking socialite, uses her event planning talents to bring people joy and contribute to the greater good. Chidi Anagonye, once wracked with indecision, learns to accept his mistakes and have conviction in his choices. Eleanor Shellstrop, arguably the most narcissistic and selfish of them all, starts making sacrifices for not only her friends but for humanity at large.
From their collective experience, Team Cockroach learned the valuable lesson that anyone can become a better person so long as they make the decision to start. Regardless of where they came from, what they had suffered, and who they were before, they grew greatly as time went on. Thus, they found the fatal flaw of the ‘Bad Place – Good Place’ system was that it was too final – it did not give people a chance to redeem themselves.
It was here they decided to abolish The Bad Place entirely. Instead, people who died would be put through a series of tests that assessed their morality, and afterwards, they were subjected to lessons that would teach them how to become better people, based on their results. The more virtuous a person was on Earth, the easier their trials would be. Passing these assessments would allow them entry into The Good Place. Some people would progress through their tests with flying colours, being given swift access to eternal paradise; others could potentially never pass, instead of being subjected to a post-lifetime of moral dilemmas and incessant tutoring.
It is in The Good Place that we see a positive outlook on the prospects of redemption, but not an ingenious one. With this system, Schur carefully treads the tightrope between idealistic naivete and harsh condemnation. It drives home the point that those who make a genuine effort to improve will eventually become ‘better’. We see characters who were neglectful parents, law-breaking sleazebags, and slanderous journalists in their time become remorseful and morally upright people once they reach The Good Place, making amends with those they wronged on Earth.
However, while everyone is given the opportunity to become better people, not everyone does. These people aren’t subjected to the fire and brimstone torture characteristic of The Bad Place, but rather a healthy amount of pressure to learn. They can choose to be stubborn and never address their flaws, remaining in ethical training forever, or they can open their mind and confront their issues, allowing them to advance through the tests. They are never treated as subhuman but rather given the eternal, nagging opportunity to change.
The Good Place can be read as a utopic commentary on the criminal justice system, particularly the debate between rehabilitation and retribution. It argues that by constantly denying a person’s own ability to improve, as well as a free life where they can spend time with loved ones, a guilty person creates their own form of torture—and we need not push them further than that.
To those who want to seek redemption, Schur sends a positive message: anyone can deserve The Good Place – they just have to work for it.
The Realism of BoJack Horseman
BoJack Horseman has put out six seasons worth of difficult characters with difficult questions. The series follows the ups and downs of one BoJack Horseman, a Hollywood actor turned alcoholic, and his turbulent relationships. Throughout each season, we have seen many opportunities for BoJack to change as he attempts to cut himself free from the toxic influences in his life like show business, substance abuse, and even trauma from his abusive family. However, these opportunities are normally clipped at the wings by BoJack himself before they can truly take off, and each mistake he makes continues to follow him on his journey of attempted self-improvement.
What BoJack has done throughout the show is what many would regard as abhorrent and irredeemable, such as abandoning his best friend who lost his job due to homophobia, sleeping with two women with whom he had considerable power over due to the extreme age gap between them, and being verbally abusive to those he considered his close friends. His addiction not only affected himself, but also those around him, either tempting them into substance abuse themselves or making them suffer the consequences of his lack of control.
What viewers feel will be a true turning point for the tragic titular character is often turned sour in a slippery slope of missteps within the next few episodes. And while it’s not just BoJack who’s flawed in this story, with his motley crew of similarly screwed up friends, he is clearly the worst of them all.
However, in Season 6 we see a shining ray of hope for BoJack that seems like it’ll stay for good this time: having been hired to teach acting at Wesleyan University, he finds a sense of genuine accomplishment in being able to impart his knowledge unto his students. At this point, he’s even managed to maintain his sobriety and, as a result, he starts acting out of interest rather than for his own ulterior motives. However, at the same time, many of the mistakes which BoJack has yet to receive retribution for are coming to light. In a battle with the press, BoJack loses his job and is condemned by the public for his wrongdoings. Everything we saw BoJack build up over the course of the season, as well as all seasons prior, is taken away from him over the span of a few days: his sobriety, his selflessness, and a significant amount of his positive relationships.
Having lost all hope in his ability to redeem himself from his mistakes, BoJack decides to drink. And in his drunken state, he breaks into his old home (now purchased by a different family), leaves his friend Diane a guilt-tripping voice message begging her to save him, and then attempts suicide unsuccessfully. He recovers in hospital and is shortly after sent to prison. A year later, he is allowed to leave prison for a day to attend the wedding of his ex-lover and close friend Princess Carolyn.
It’s here that he’s found everyone else has changed since he’s been gone. Princess Carolyn has finally managed to balance her work and personal life, having previously been obsessed with the former. Mr Peanutbutter is focusing on improving independently; his previous relationships having been used as distractions from his problems. Diane Nguyen, slowly but surely, has been able to place trust in her partner and grow closer to her new family despite the trauma of her own.
Diane confronts BoJack with the fact that while she truly cares for him as a friend and will never stop doing so, she cannot continue to be close with him due to their relationship being a negative factor in her development as a whole. He is always dragging her down and putting her in a bad place, and he is always relying on her to help him be a better person; she wants to be able to care for her new family. This is her priority.
While BoJack has been in prison for a year, everyone has moved on. For better, in that, the public has largely forgotten about his controversy and is open to seeing him on the big screen again — and for worse, in that, all of his friends have stabilised their lives for the most part, except for him. However, there is a silver lining to Diane’s confrontation: she wishes him the best.
BoJack Horseman has always dealt in greys. This is far from a happy ending, and to the frustration of some, it is largely ambiguous. It is unclear to the audience whether BoJack is going to become a better person immediately after this finale, or if it will even happen at all. Truth be told, this is not an ending; while we will no longer be there to watch BoJack’s journey, his life and that of those around him will still go on.
What BoJack Horseman presents to us is the notion that while every action has its consequences, these consequences are not necessarily the be-all-end-all of one’s life. There will always be a second chance to try. It may take several attempts, and feature some low points, but the journey will never be truly over. Improvement is not a straight incline, nor is it one without loss — but so long as you keep living, every day is a day to start being better than the last.
Can anyone be redeemed?
The Good Place and BoJack Horseman don’t shy away from answering one of life’s most difficult questions. Funnily enough, where they are juxtaposed makes them complementary; while The Good Place follows a success story in redemption, showcasing four selfish people becoming some of the most selfless in existence, BoJack Horseman tells the tale of one person who, unlike his peers, hasn’t been able to move past his mistakes.
I believe that both are best watched in tandem, as they teach the same lesson with two distinct outlooks. Where The Good Place instils a bright and bubbly hope, BoJack Horseman places a good-intentioned warning.
In the end, their message is the same: anyone can be redeemed, but only those who try in earnest will.
Images: Colleen Hayes/NBC and Netflix