NBC's afterlife sitcom took some curious detours on the way to a moving conclusion.

By Darren Franich
January 31, 2020 at 07:51 PM EST
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The Good Place was a nice show about nice people. The main characters were cursed to eternal punishment, but nobody watching thought they belonged in hell. Their sins were quirky, their souls cute. In the NBC sitcom’s generous and exasperating final season, even the demons revealed a softer side, pushing the hereafter toward a new era of Good-Evil collaboration. Everyone learned philosophy; everyone was stoked about philosophy!

I liked Thursday’s series finale, and I used to love the show. The season 1 twist remains a high point in recent TV history. Creator Michael Schur cleverly revealed that the neighborhood built by angel-seeming architect Michael (Ted Danson) was a friendly trap. He could have tortured Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) for millennia. In season 2’s absurdly brilliant “Dance Dance Resolution,” he kinda did, rebooting his tormentees’ memory several hundred times.

Michael broke good. The gang destroyed the neighborhood. Then Schur wrote and directed the season 2 finale, “Somewhere Else,” the all-time best Good Place episode. It showed Eleanor getting a second chance at life. She became a better person. Time passed. Fun beckoned: casual disregard for fellow people, weekday hangovers, recyclables in the trash, the environment something for someone else to worry about. The Good Place always enjoyed building its cosmos. But “Somewhere Else” plumbed a deep well of human frailty: day after day, the same temptations, your good intentions spiraling to dull actualities.

After that, I worry this smart and sincere sitcom edged into painfully well-meaning escapism. People can get better, and they can make each other better: That was the underlying motto, and a worthwhile theme to explore. Didn’t “getting better” seem a tad simple, though? Eleanor was no longer some scuzzbucket struggling between the allure of weeknight shots and a poorly paid activist gig. Her whole job was going to Australia to fix herself. Then the central foursome became a crusading Soul Squad, flying around the world on Tahani’s infinite dime.

Colleen Hayes/NBC

They wound up saving humanity, and the universe. The Good Place flirted heavily with philosophy and religion, but deep down I think it was a superhero story, complete with importance-announcing dialogue. Michael was “the greatest architect in existence,” Janet was “the most advanced being in the universe,” the lead ensemble became “the very best versions” of themselves.

Schur’s an optimist who believes the sweetness of his characters will be rewarded. His masterpiece Parks & Recreation wrapped on a success-for-everybody flash-forward: best-selling authorhood, mayoralty, a governorship, maybe a presidency? In that spirit, I think The Good Place cut some corners when it became a catharsis-of-the-week redemption procedural. A sisterhood was redeemed, a fractured mother-daughter relationship started to heal, old love was reformed through various amnesias. Like the philosophers say: You can’t save Donkey Doug, but at least you can save Pillboi. Actually, the finale revealed, you can save Donkey Doug. You can save everyone!

The cast was swell. D’Arcy Carden was an immediate discovery, making Janet a good-humored god thing evolving past omni-consciousness while falling believably hard for an apex Florida Man. Danson had whimsical fun as a reformed Michael, though a late flashback to his jailer days reminded you of his insidious charm. Harper sputtered splendidly, and Jacinto and Jamil played their single jokes (Jacksonville/namedropping) with aplomb. Bell’s acerbic steadiness counterbalanced an ever-busier plot.

Then came the final twist. In the Good Place, everyone was a purposeless zombie. The solution: Add a doorway to nothing-everythingness. Bring death back to death. The emotionally charged last episode, “Whenever You’re Ready,” had the flash-est forwards in TV history, following everyone (including offscreen Shakespeare) to a final state of grace. Jason scored his perfect Madden game. Chidi experienced profound joy with Eleanor. Tahani finally got along with her parents, and dedicated herself to learning the demi-godly profession of architecting. Eleanor loved Chidi enough to let him go and, umm, also saved Mindy St. Clare (Maribeth Monroe), sure, I can see that. Michael became a human, and his legal name was Michael Realman, god that’s funny. Janet was Doctor Manhattan, more or less, living forever in kamillion Jason kisses.

It was an eccentric finale: location shoots in Athens and Paris, crossovers with Parks & Rec and the Danson-Steenburgenverse. I doubt there will ever be another sitcom that openly references Kant so much, and I admire any show that ends with the entire cast joining together in the afterlife to enter a higher state of Deadness. (See also: Lost.) And, after two years of whiplashing plots, we watched the characters at rest. How sweet to see everyone say goodbye — and how transcendantly goofy that Jason spent eterna-time walking through a forest, waiting for Janet to swing by. Chidi’s journey through his own past felt personal. Bell dug deep as the last misfit toy left on the island.

I admire the ambitions of The Good Place, and I wonder what could have been. The series seemed anxious about portraying anything nasty enough to upset the smiley balance. It believed everyone was redeemable — and was unwilling to portray anything that came close to irredeemable. The least curable character was probably misogynist mediocrity Brent (Benjamin Koldyke), and even he saw a climactic uptick in his sacred Points. That was held up as proof of the theory (not entirely convincing) that the afterlife should become an infinite videogame of moral evolution. I wonder how many viewers are also watching the just-released final season of Bojack Horseman, which has its own tougher (and funnier) vision of guilt and past sins. (Bojack also has some Symbolic Door imagery, and wow, that door does not turn you into starspecks of good deedery.)

The Good Place wanted to fix the universe — and it did! All it took to rescue the broken souls of humanity was infinite time, infinite resources, and a helping hand from some former demons. Aspirational, no doubt. I preferred the spikier first half, when Danson’s smile was a lethal weapon, and the title was still one hell of a joke.

Series grade: B
Finale grade: B+

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  • 4
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  • 09/19/16-01/30/20
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