Inside The Good Place's final season: 'This will be worth it'
Just a time-knife's throw from Ponzu Scheme, the stars of The Good Place have gathered outside a familiar frozen-yogurt shop to film one of their last-ever group scenes. It's hotter than Hades (hmmm) on the Universal Studios lot, but a figurative chill fills the air as the cameras roll on yet another loaded goodbye for the series finale of NBC's ambitious afterlife comedy. "I can tell you're sad," dopey, pre-successful Jacksonville DJ Jason (Manny Jacinto) observes of Team Cockroach. "You have the same look on your faces that my teachers did whenever I raised my hand in class."
Creator and finale writer-director Mike Schur minds the minutiae, readjusting trays of oysters and a bong while tweaking punchlines involving "concussion sauce" and "younger bodies." "There's a lot of endings," he teases of the finale, "and there's a lot of resolution to a lot of the characters' stories in certain ways."
Schur certainly won't reveal the fates awaiting our scrappy in-limbo souls—reforming dirtbag Eleanor (Kristen Bell), overanxious ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), self-consumed socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason—or humanized Bad Place architect Michael (Ted Danson) and ever-evolving database Janet (D'Arcy Carden). But there are scads of colorful clues on set: a mini football field; people in matching outfits; a hybrid tanning booth/karaoke machine (leisure activity? torture device?). Oh, and Shakespeare has done something dramatic that's the talk of…wherever this is.
We can't disclose what the fork is going on, but it's a cosmic swirl of joy, melancholy, loopiness, poignancy, and the profound. Some actors do battle with moistening tear ducts. "We're supersensitive right now," mock-warns Jacinto. Says Carden: "We've been trying to keep the tears inside of our eyes."
Even the genial general of the show (make that: of TV) is feeling the sting. "It's like, 'Oh wait, we may be acting sorrow, but it's creeping in here,'" offers Danson. "But there's also a great deal of satisfaction and pride in being part of this chapter book about morality and farts." Adds Jamil: "I'm f—ing overwhelmed. I'm in denial. I may never leave and just walk the lot like a ghost. I'll dress up as Tahani and haunt tourists."
However you cope with loss, prepare to bid farewell to one of TV's most inventive comedies — one thoughtful enough to explore the pursuit and value of goodness; one brave enough to feature giant toads, a bagel shop named From Schmear to Eternity, and references to Kierkegaard and Hume. Only 14 chapters remain in this underdog series that toiled in overnight-ratings purgatory, built a dedicated audience online, charmed critics, won a Peabody, and recently nabbed five Emmy nominations. (It also mic-dropped one of the mightiest mind-melting finales of the new century when Eleanor deduced that she and her beleaguered companions were actually in the Bad Place, not the Good Place.) But before retirement (not the soul-disintegrating punishment facing Michael), a final test awaits (besides the can humans evolve? experiment): concluding this paradigm-shifting adventure on a heavenly note. "This will be worth it," declares Bell. "It will give you a lot of feelings — and one is a strong sense of satisfaction. Not only will the ending be worth it, you'll understand why the whole thing was worth it."
Schur says the decision to end the series after four seasons "felt right" and "fell into place" once the writers decided to have Judge Gen (guest star Maya Rudolph) allow the Soul Squad a redo on Earth at the end of season 2. An early exit from No Exit-ville was arguably necessitated by design, as this show burns through plot faster than Eleanor through shrimp. Ever since Schur moved up Michael's "discovery" about Eleanor — something that would seem like the logical ending of season 1 — to about the halfway point of the season, story speed doubled, "which means four seasons became eight seasons," explains the creator. "I think that's about right. The goal has been to chew through story and accelerate things twice as fast as the old system of network TV suggested."
This fearlessness was something that he learned in the writers' room of The Office when Greg Daniels (with whom he would eventually create Parks and Recreation) decided to advance the Jim and Pam's Will-they-or-won't-they? relationship. "It was among the many great lessons that Greg Daniels taught me," notes Schur. "Sometimes the best thing to do is to just plow headlong into the scary thing and trust that you'll be able to keep up the drama and the intrigue of the show. And in this case, we applied that lesson to literally every single aspect of the show." Not that the news was easy for all to digest. "It's the best-worst feeling in the world to be a part of something you love that's ending," says Bell, adding that it's "so meaningful and impactful because the entire last season is such a lesson, a gift." Shares Danson: "I was slightly stunned— you rarely get canceled by your creator. But it had so much integrity."
That's one quality the Soul Squad aims to imbue in the new test subjects for this not-so-modest experiment that could save Team Cockroach (plus all of humanity) from eternal torture via butthole spiders and spastic dentistry. When we left off eight months ago, Michael and the team showed Judge Gen that the points system for determining entrance into paradise had gone to hell — somewhat literally — and pitched a grand and desperate test to settle the score. Season 3's finale unveiled the first two subjects — Chidi's neuroscientist ex Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Tahani's gossip-blogger foe John (Brandon Scott Jones) — and now viewers will meet the other two human guinea pigs, also chosen by Bad Place boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson): a pleasant-ish Norwegian and a fourth soul who are "more abstract in the ways they are designed to drive everyone crazy," hints Schur. Once test subjects themselves, the members of the Soul Squad face great challenges in mentoring this foursome, with Eleanor doubly taxed; this former lone wolf must lead the operation and tolerate the pain of spending quality time with memory-wiped beau Chidi, who is now what Schur calls "an ethical sleeper agent."
Also in this ambitious and bonkers fourth season (which begins Sept. 26): a new version of Janet; visits to old-school locales; returns of old friends/fiends; surprise guests ("I really couldn't believe who I was standing next to on the screen throughout the season," teases Jamil); a secret-spilling baby elephant made of pure light; and an episode modeled after a John le Carré mystery. "When we were told [about season 4], we had no idea," says Harper with a chuckle. "There's no way anyone's going to conceive where we're going with this." "It's like a board game," adds Carden. "Not Monopoly. More Candy Land vibes." Bell chooses a different analogy: life (not the board game). "It is frustrating, requires effort, hilarious at times, and in the end is really meaningful," she explains. "And over too soon."
As for that End, the cast found the capper to this comedy to be unexpectedly powerful and poignant. "It's completion of our journeys in a way that I find satisfying, hopeful, and goes beyond our conventional understanding of storytelling," declares Harper. Jacinto was compelled to action. "After I read the finale, the first thing I did was call my parents," he shares. "I just needed to see them after that." And Jamil just needed a moment to fully embrace it. "I raged against the ending ever so briefly when I first read it," she admits. "I wasn't ready for it, emotionally. But then, as the brilliance of it — the complete correctness of it — washed over me, I started to accept it."
How the audience will respond is both final frontier and great unknown, but rest assured that one of comedy's brightest and most humane creators strove to answer those giant-picture questions that the series has been asking. "We didn't pull any punches," he says. "This show explicitly laid itself out like a book, in that we call every episode a chapter and it feels like an old-timey serial in the way that novels [were] published in magazines, one chapter at a time. That's true to the way that the show was meant to feel, and the way we were creating it. But it also means it's like, 'All right, a–holes, whaddaya got? What's the final chapter of the book?' So it definitely feels like a tall order." Fans aren't asking for much—just a finale that unmasks the secrets of the universe, redefines the human condition, takes the Jaguars to the Super Bowl, and explains how to rig one of those dope shrimp-dispensing soda fountains.
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