‘The Good Place,’ ‘BoJack Horseman,’ and the Audacity of Committing to Decency (Column)

Deep into the first season of “BoJack Horseman,” the horse man himself stands at a microphone and asks — no, begs — his friend to tell him that he’s “a good person.” Fresh off yet another useless bender that left him right back where he started, BoJack is desperate for validation, almost literally dying to hear that he’s not, in fact, the monster he’s long suspected himself to be. And yet, as indicated by the episode’s title of “Downer Ending,” the show isn’t interested in answering that question, nor in placating its ostensible hero. Instead, an unbearable silence stretches out before the episode cuts to black.

This tension between the longing to be “a good person” and the harder reality of what it takes to be one holds true for the entire series of “BoJack Horseman” (which comes to an end on January 31 after six seasons on Netflix). In a more explicit way, it’s also been the driving force of “The Good Place,” the afterlife sitcom that braids its surreal jokes with moral philosophy (and comes to an end January 30, a day before “BoJack,” after four seasons on NBC). Both shows are wildly funny and deeply strange, pushing the conventional bounds of what a TV comedy can, or should, be. And despite their distinctly different premises and approaches, that same question of “what does it mean to be a good person?” form their spines.

Half vicious Hollywood satire, half devastating existential crisis, Raphael Bob Waksberg’s “BoJack Horseman” spends much of its run forcing its characters to reckon with themselves and their choices. BoJack (Will Arnett) is a washed-up sitcom star drinking away any remaining dregs of goodwill he’s got from his industry and friends alike, casually wreaking havoc and tearing women’s lives apart in between his frantic bursts of self-loathing. Diane (Alison Brie), his ghostwriter turned best friend, struggles to find meaning in her marriage to the perpetually upbeat Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) and purpose in a city that doesn’t exactly thrive on authenticity. Over the course of the series, reluctantly and otherwise, BoJack and Diane both face their demons and come out the other side, bruised and melancholy and sharper than before. By the end (without spoiling anything specific), “BoJack” is less a meditation on what it takes to be a so-called “good” person than what it means to be a considerate one who owns their own shit. In order to be better, they have to stop talking about wanting to be better and just get up every morning to try a little harder than the day before to get there.

Michael Schur’s “The Good Place,” meanwhile, has spent its run talking itself into philosophical knots about how to be good in a world that makes everything so hard for almost everyone. Its central deviants are a grab bag of vices and neuroses, from self-described “Arizona dirtbag” Eleanor (Kristen Bell), to a chronically indecisive professor (William Jackson Harper), to a literal demon bred to torture (Ted Danson). While the first season played out as a cheeky, stealth mystery, the rest of the series has unfolded as an obsessive dissection of the human condition and the massive gray area between the stark “good” and “bad” designations that otherwise define its world. In doing so, the show lost some of its initial zip, its characters lost in the cosmic balance. But as it reached the finish line, “The Good Place” landed at an inevitable conclusion: for 99 percent of the population, being a decent person is hard, unrelenting work that requires patience and empathy. Wanting to be better isn’t enough; you have to get up every morning and try, just a little harder than the day before, to get there.

The shows didn’t run in exact parallel lines to get to their similar conclusions, but it nonetheless feels right that they’re both ending at a time when TV seems more concerned than ever with the idea of what it means to be “good” and the act of trying to achieve maximum decency. Not too long ago, “hot messes” like Eleanor and grim “antihero” jerks like BoJack reigned supreme as television embraced and examined the intricacies of dysfunction. (That such characters often broke down into that gendered split is relevant, if a whole other essay.) But in the past few years, many characters who began as agents of chaos have ended their runs as people who dare to give a damn. Take the broads of “Broad City” (played by co-creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer), who were deliberate cartoons when they first debuted on Comedy Central in 2014, but who bowed out in 2019 as (slightly) more mature versions of themselves who decided it was time to grow up. Or “Russian Doll,” which followed the walking, talking, smoking personification of id (played by co-creator Natasha Lyonne) as she fell through the looking glass over and over again until she learned how to take herself and the needs of others more seriously. Or “Fleabag,” which was originally a single season 2016 show about a furiously funny woman (played by creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge) stumbling her way through grief, before evolving into a two-season treatise on the agony and ecstasy of being vulnerable in 2019. Or “Schitt’s Creek,” which began as a comedy about a family of oblivious snobs and soon blossomed into an aggressively lovely show about a family learning how to be nice.

Even just over the past year, there’s been a growing feeling on television that, perhaps, the boldest thing a character can be is truly thoughtful about their impact on themselves and the worlds around them — and no, it’s probably not a coincidence that this wave of onscreen character growth is happening in the wake of the real world seeming to become more catastrophic by the minute. Who needs to spend time with unrepentant fictional jerks when the news feels dominated by so many real ones? Who wants to watch the world burn on television when you can feel the flames licking at your feet in reality?

And so there’s something undeniably poignant about “The Good Place” and “BoJack Horseman” ending within a day of each other, their missions as complete as they’ll ever be. Each emphasized the importance of self-awareness, mutual respect, compassion, and paying it forward. These shows found new roads into self-actualization, and made the act of committing to it their driving engines. They made their characters face the grey areas that once scared them so much, eventually having them dive in with clear eyes and a willingness to not just engage, but screw up their strength and make the active decision to grow. That might not be as poetic as walking into the sunset, but as the denizens of “The Good Place” and “BoJack Horseman” learned after going through literal and figurative hell, it’s a whole lot more rewarding.

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