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January 20, 2017 at 04:50 PM EST

[SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Thursday night’s season finale of The Good Place.]

The Good Place has gone bad. The serialized mystery sitcom about flawed souls residing in a very buggy construct of heaven ended a phenomenal first season Thursday with a twist that was hiding in plain sight: “The good place” wasn’t a peculiar subdivision of heaven but a beta test for a brand new kind of hell. Michael, Ted Danson’s silver-haired architect, wasn’t an angelic middle manager-striver with a big heart for humanity, but a bored, silver-tongued demon with a hot new idea for eternal torture: tricking the damned into driving each other insane with their own foibles and making them miserable with their own lousy company. It’s the “hell is other people” idea of Sartre’s No Exit spliced with The Prisoner, set in a seemingly idyllic urban village of customized homes and fro-yo vendors, where swear words were magically autocorrected into nonsense and everyone was served by a chipper, Siri-esque concierge named Janet (D’Arcy Carden).

There was something vaguely meta about all this. The Good Place’s own impish architect is also named Michael — Michael Schur, the co-creator of Parks & Recreation and The Office. The scene when Michael, a restless creative questing for something original, pitched his high-concept proposal for a new way to hold and keep souls — a “14 million point plan” where the many moving parts, unpredictable variables, and potential for failure was part of the thrill — doubled as comment on this risky, genre-busting show. The premise — or the apparent premise — focused on Kristen Bell’s Eleanor, a noxious narcissist mistakenly sent “up there” instead of “down there” upon her death, trying to avoid exposure by becoming worthy of her cushy afterlife with the help of three seemingly good people who would later be revealed to be just a forked-up as her: dangerously indecisive ethics prof Chidi (William Jackson Harper), vain do-gooder Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and wastrel deejay Jason (Manny Jacinto).

Schur clearly had/has immense imagination for his enterprise, but he also made it easy to sweat its sustainability, given how quickly season 1 chewed through plot and themes. By episode 7, Eleanor had come out as a bad person, commencing a long endgame that saw her comrades conspiring to keep her from deportation to “the bad place.” By episode 12, Eleanor had been adequately rehabbed; every backstory had been excavated with flashbacks; the afterlife had been mapped as we visited purgatory (i.e., “the middle place”) and got a big hit of the underworld, courtesy of a contingent of hard-partying nihilists led by Adam Scott’s riotous Trevor; and Schur had sufficiently completed the show’s interrogation of goodness. Being good, the show seemed to say, is about organizing around empathy, living for others, and helping people flourish. The philosophy was summed up in an Easter egg, a real-life book, What We Owe Each Other, a new gloss on social contract theory by T.M. Scanlon. The salvation gospel of The Good Place: other people might be insufferable, even deplorable, but they’re also our hope for survival and flourishing, as individuals and as a society. Or, as Lost put it: live together, die alone.

If only The Good Place had Lost’s ratings. The finale’s knowingness extended to beats in which we learned that Michael’s boss — Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), a deadpan and dead-eyed suit as numbers-driven as any network exec — had wagered that it wouldn’t take long for Eleanor to see through the ruse of “the good place.” (Michael thought he could dupe her for a thousand years; Shawn bet six months.) The conclusion of the episode hinged on Michael trying to convince Shawn not to cancel his project but give him another opportunity to make it work better and last longer.

He got his wish. Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason were made to forget this season ever happened and separated. Michael’s new idea, it seems, is that hell should be divisiveness and isolationism. In the cliffhanger, Eleanor found a note that she wrote to herself and hid inside Janet before the memory wipe, instructing her to find Chidi, her goodness coach and maybe love. She could have done herself the favor of being more explicit: “YOU’RE IN HELL, YOU DOPE!” But the message mirrors the message of the show and succinctly sums up Eleanor’s arc from someone who only thought about herself to someone who recognized her responsibility to others. It was one of those cliffhangers that works as either next-season set-up or end-of-series series sum-up, à la Angel or The Sopranos, or The Prisoner or No Exit, for that matter. The best afterlife Eleanor can hope for is a never-ending story of finding and re-finding herself, connecting, falling away, and reconnecting with her soul cluster.

The Good Place was, IMHO, one of the best shows of 2016. A premature call, perhaps, but I loved it that much. It was an excellent expression of a genre that pushes my buttons, the mystery serial, and it was more successful than either Mr. Robot or Westworld (and I loved both of those shows last year, more so than most critics). The intrigues of character and world were engrossing, the plot was well-paced and the cliffhangers drove the show forward, and every episode was a marvelous entertainment unto itself, rich with thoughtfulness, zany ideas, and truly funny special effects. The last five episodes, airing in January after a too-long two-month break that broke the show’s momentum, were a mixed bag, but they still affirmed the magnificence of the show, and it finished strong.

A controversial hallmark of this genre is the big twist. As Matt Zoller Seitz and other critics have vigorously argued in recent months, it’s not easy — or even a good idea — to do a big twist anymore in an era of theorizing fans who engage shows as puzzles to solve. If they don’t crack mysteries quickly, they flood the cultural conversation with misleading possibilities, confusing the way we see shows and putting a show’s story in unwanted competition with fan fiction. (I have contributed to this condition with my writing about Lost, Fringe, Mr. Robot, and Westworld, for better and worse. I can defend my practice, but I recognize that it also sews confusion.)

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The Good Place’s climactic shocker was genuinely surprising, impactful, and earned. I was expecting a game-changer — a relocation to “the bad place,” or maybe everyone would get reincarnated and sent back to Earth for a season or so. But I wasn’t anticipating a radical retcon that reframed the series. Still, it made sense upon reflection — a thinking-through that the finale facilitated with an abundance of review and flashes to key moments of the season. (The finale had clip show and bottle episode construction; maybe they needed the money to afford that terrific special effect that was Todd the Lava Monster.) (More of him, please.) The deeper you got into the season, the more you began to wonder how, exactly, all these undeserving folks managed to make it into Michael’s plastic paradise, especially given the severe calculus by which Michael and company measured the worthiness of souls. I never experienced that as a logic bust, nor did it ever really make me suspicious. I accepted it and appreciated it as part of the show’s critique and subversive protest of religious and secular models of righteousness.

That remains true, even as we now see that these paradoxes were plain-as-day clues that “the good place” wasn’t broken; it was a mean deception. Danson made us swallow the lie whole by giving Michael an absolutely earnest, admirable persona that now stands revealed as devilishly disingenuous and makes sense as such. His most lovable traits — his grace for humanity and delight in their quirks — were also his most cunning, because he often came off as gullible, which only gilded his golden scam even more. Danson also rocked the critical moment when Michael finally dropped the façade with a chilling laugh and rather complex reaction: He was pissed that Eleanor had smoked him out so soon, but he delighted in the devastation and despair of her friends, anyway. It was punchline and gut-punch, funny and not-funny at the same time; it reminded me of the sensational season 2 finale of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, when Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) realized that her own happily ever after was [SPOILER REDACTED]. Bottom line: Ted Danson, living legend, was divine, and he better be getting an Emmy nomination, or there’ll be hell to pay.

The big twist also accomplished the primary mission of capturing the imagination for a second season, though I offer this praise with caveats. The revelation that “the good place” was actually a bad place means that the show’s afterlife geography hasn’t been as explored as we thought. There could be other bad places to visit, not to mention the real-deal “good place” itself, provided there is one. There are still places to go, new allies and enemies to meet, and that’s a great thing for this show: the best episodes in the second half of the season were the ones in which Schur and his writers expanded and investigated their world. Michael has been recharged with greater complexity and clarified, sharpened purpose; I want to see how he might work to frustrate — or not — Eleanor’s quest to reunite with her soul cluster. (Where are Chidi, Tahani, and Jason, by the way? Have they been relocated to their own “good places”?)

The mind-wipe conceit means season 2 could give us a rehashed season 1, with Eleanor repeating (or not) her redemptive transformation while regaining (or not) her memory. (Season 2 could be akin to Lost’s “sideways world” season 6, which had the castaways going through the paces of an alt-reality road not taken before being made to remember their true history.) If Schur and his writers delay Eleanor’s enlightenment, they will have the challenge of making her second tour through these themes interesting and surprising, with new ideas that, ideally, should complicate her want to reconnect with Chidi, et al. (A love interest is the obvious possibility. Here’s hoping for some killer casting there. Maybe it’s because I have him on the brain after last week’s show-stealing turn on Portlandia, but Bell’s Veronica Mars co-star and friend Ryan Hansen would be an excellent choice.)

I’m also interested in seeing if The Good Place can continue being a very funny comedy that’s about more than just its characters, world, and premise, but a sly, light rumination about the nature of goodness in the here and now and allegory for living it out. There could be something very inspiring — and very timely — about watching Eleanor getting woke anew, revolting against an oppressive society that delights in her pain and fallenness, and questing to reconnect with her equally beleaguered pals so they can take control of their destinies and continue the shared work of mutually beneficial progress. The Good Place has the same ideals as Parks and Recreation — it just expresses in a dramatically different way. Eleanor is the Anti-Knope slowly becoming conformed to Knope-likeness. Her friends are outsiders, not insiders, redemption-seekers evolving into people worthy of being cultural redeemers. My fellow Americans, we need The Good Place, now more than ever. NBC, make it so. A-

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seasons
3
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run date
09/19/16
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