Look, no sentient being reads a review before watching the thing being reviewed and then complains about spoilers. Still, in the interest of not getting yelled at by a TV-loving rock or something… SPOILERS. Big ones.
There’s been so much to love about this first season of The Good Place. Previously unfamiliar actors like Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, D’Arcy Carden, and, especially, William Jackson Harper have revealed that they are true comic talents to watch. Kristen Bell and Ted Danson dove into their lead roles here with the relish only old pros can show when they’re given a great gift of a series. The dialogue all those actors had to work with sparked with original wit and weirdness at every turn. And, man, could The Good Place whip a killer twist ending on us, something it, improbably, did at the conclusion of every single episode.
But humming under the sunny, placid streets of the neighborhood at the center of The Good Place was a mystery that kept tossing off seemingly random facts about this supposed paradise. At first, the fun was in compiling all the Good Place’s rules—on the surface so sensible, but always suggesting questionable moral construction. Part of the fun (as witnessed here in the comments on these reviews) is in punching holes in the seeming perfection of the show’s moral universe, and speculating how much of the inconsistency could be pinned on creator Michael Schur. If, for example, Tahani’s lifetime of philanthropy could earn her way into heaven despite the fact that she never stopped calling attention to her showboating goodness, then is a pure point total of good deeds truly the objective measure we should judge goodness by? And if the undeniably kind and generous Chidi’s habit of thinking about nothing but what the right thing to do is at every single moment meant that he never actually acted in any meaningful way, then are good intentions all that really matters? Eleanor and Jason were just dirtbags, more or less, making their accidental presence in the Good Place the show’s initial comic catalyst for a reliably funny fish-out-of-water comedy.
Only, it was all a brilliant lie, both on the part of Schur—and of Michael.
One more time. Bravo, boys.
After a first half where Eleanor’s flight to the “medium place” occupied by the eminently mediocre Mindy St. Claire (played by the decidedly stellar Maribeth Monroe), those inconsistencies in the Good Place (and The Good Place) only intensified. With Marc Evan Jackson’s impeccably hilarious arbiter Shawn ruling that, since Eleanor and Jason’s return came seconds after the cutoff, they have the rest of this hour-long finale to decide which two of the four main characters will go to the Bad Place, something was fishy. Shawn’s loose interpretation of “criminals” and good versus bad people looked awfully arbitrary, with Chidi and Tahani’s afterlife actions in helping Eleanor and Jason summarily judged on par with Eleanor and Jason’s short lifetimes of sub-average humanity. As with the funny but broad jokes about Shawn’s eccentricities (encasing himself in a protective cocoon whenever a witness gets too emotional, references to sleeping in “goo” for 29 years), the cliffhanger decision smacked of sloppiness. (I was put in mind of the genial, knock-around, high-concept goofiness of The Neighbors.) I was, honestly, a little disappointed.
Silly me. As the second half ticked down with Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi, Jason, and even Real Eleanor all playing “I’m Spartacus” and offering to take the trip to the Bad Place at various times, I knew something was coming. But not this. If an evil smile can earn someone an Emmy, then Ted Danson’s going to win one, as Michael’s reveal is signaled by Danson letting the most unexpectedly terrifying toothy grin and evil laugh supplant Michael’s heretofore sad-sack sweetness. It was, honestly, chilling. Even there, the shock was such that I started to cast my mind over all the possibilities (Michael’s working a game on Shawn, it’s not really Michael), as Eleanor’s summary dismissal of the helpful Bambadjan’s announcement of a loophole to their predicament still hung in the air, suggesting that Michael was simply going to tell Eleanor that her big “eureka!” moment was just plain wrong. Instead, everything is completely, satisfyingly, not as we thought.
A massive, game-changing swerve is a hell of a thing to pull off effectively. Even the best ones send internet types off to compile their lists of the top 10 reasons why the twist in The Usual Suspects is actually really silly, etc. And, sure, someone’s undoubtedly doing just that here, but, persnickety pedantry aside, this one holds together with fiendish dramatic logic. Schur explained before the season that he’d consulted with Lost’s Damon Lindelof on the art of show-planning, and here it’s clear he took both the positive and negative lessons of Lindelof’s series to heart. Apart from Danson’s performance (that smile is one of the best things he’s ever done, seriously), his motivation as an architect of the Bad Place out to innovate the traditional, stale tortures his kind inflicts on poor mortals is just the sort of thing a real, dedicated, immortal asshole would come up with. (I loved Michael’s petulant move when Eleanor spoils his fun, slinking into a chair and deliberately knocking over a plant like a cat.) And the explanation that this particular hell was built just to specifically torture the four main characters (everyone else in the neighborhood is a Bad Place employee, out for kicks) tracks, too.
As we see in Michael’s flashbacks—masterfully designed to trick us into thinking him the idealistic, human-loving dreamer he’s told everyone he was—even the lava monsters of the Bad Place are mere workaday functionaries. Turning four “medium” humans into unwitting instruments of each others’ torture by preying on their failings and insecurities? That’ll pep an evil sonofabitch up better than a hot mug of antimatter. (Which they drink at Bad Place HQ.) The best twists invariably demand a full rewatch. It’ll be interesting to view Michael’s actions through the lens of the finale—for one thing, it goes to show that only great actors (Danson and Michael) can play a truly great villain.
In the end, it’s the four humans who throw a wrench into Michael’s diabolical fun. The last element of The Good Place that’s been so welcome is its generosity of spirit. Sure, it’s always fun to watch the brash Eleanor take some of the wind out of her seemingly perfect surroundings and neighbors. But The Good Place placed her growing relationship with mentor and friend Chidi at its heart, and, here, that’s what gives them all a chance. “He underestimated Chidi’s teaching,” says Eleanor, and she’s right. Defending Eleanor to Shawn earlier, Chidi makes the impassioned plea for her to stay in what he thinks is the Good Place, saying, “She changed. She worked, and she studied, and she got better. And it wasn’t just self-preservation, it was real self-improvement. I made the decision to help Eleanor that first week, and I’m glad I did. She’s worth it.” And while the question of soulmates is more up in the air than ever (William Jackson Harper’s staccato delivery of “I don’t know. Please don’t ask that. My stomach hurts,” is outstanding as ever), Eleanor’s description of what Chidi means to her is so perfect it even incorporates Plato into the metaphor. (“I was dropped into a cave and you were my flashlight.”)
There’s setting up for a next season, and then there’s this, as Eleanor, desperately trying to find a way to thwart Michael’s plan to wipe their memories and force them to dance for the Bad Place’s amusement again, scribbles something on the flyleaf of the last of Chidi’s philosophy books, and has Janet (who can’t eat) hold it in her mouth. Michael’s plan is to spread them out among different “soulmates” next time (Eleanor gets a blandly hunky former mailman and workout freak to keep her distracted), but, when the rebooted Janet delivers the paper back to Eleanor, it says, simply, “Eleanor—Find Chidi.” After seeing this mind-wiped Eleanor going through the same motions we saw in the first episode—only now seeing Michael’s true nature in every gesture and [shudder] smile—the dramatic and comedic possibilities opening up in front of her genuinely demand a second season of such an ambitious and uniquely satisfying (and hilarious) series.
- We finally see how Eleanor died, her annual lonely, self-destructive birthday blowout a function of the cocoon of hard, self-sufficient armor her shitty, neglectful parents left her to develop. (We see the young teenaged Eleanor, finally emancipated, eating her self-bought birthday cake in her new, mostly empty apartment.) Still, as she tells Jason when convincing him they have to turn themselves in to save their friends, she’s done using her parents’ undeniably awful example as an excuse to be an asshole
- Not that Eleanor wasn’t an entertaining asshole, telling the unsuspecting checkout girl about her big birthday plans, “Yup, gonna sit alone in my house watching wedding fails on YouTube drinking margaritas through a Twizzler straw until I pass out on top of my vibrator.”
- In Eleanor’s supermarket flashback, Tahani’s on the cover of one of the checkout magazines.
- Jason’s ideas of sexy stuff, according to Janet: Lamborghinis, cool snakes, girls with pigtails eating lollipops, spinning rims, 20,000 followers on Instagram, latex pants, Carls Jr. ads, and sex. Eleanor: “Some of those are right.”
- After all Eleanor’s protestations about how she deserved a Medium Place, the one we see just won’t suit this new and improved Eleanor at all. Apart from the warm beer, Eagles’ music (only live versions), water-stained Anne Rice vampire novels, Cannonball Run II (and the making-of, both on VHS), and Shatner poetry, Mindy St. Clair’s company—which the old Eleanor would have welcomed—is already wearing on her by the time she convinces Jason to leave.
- Maribeth Monroe, as she does on Workaholics, is outstanding at twisting her mobile face around moral compromises and outright borderline insanity. Her dead-eyed reverie when remembering how much she used to love cocaine holds just long enough to be hilarious coming and going.
- And any time Adam Scott can come back as peerless Bad Place douchebag Trevor is most welcome. Here, I especially loved how he rides into frame on a BMX bike before just letting it careen offscreen.
- The twist robs Shawn of his deadpan, but, before then, Marc Evan Jackson has some pitch-perfect withering lines. “I have ruled the fart inadmissible as evidence” and “This is the almighty judge on high of all beings living and dead for all eternity. My name’s Shaun,” just wouldn’t work with anyone else.
- Also: “In preparation for your trip to the Bad Place, please put on these fedoras.”
- Apart from being the source of that inadmissible fart, here’s to Bad Janet for her greeting, “What’s up, forknuts?”
- Good Janet and Jason haven’t been able to figure out sex yet, somehow. (I mean, Janet knows everything, and Jason was hot back on Earth.) Still, their stick-figure sex plans are clearly Jason’s work, with names such as: leap frog, merry-go-round, centipede, webcrawler, trombone, and triple-double.
- Later, he brags, “We did a bunch of awesome amazing stuff which almost turned out to be sex.”
- Great mislead on Jason’s attempt to Molotov-cocktail the train back to the Good Place, as the bottle just clunks harmlessly off the engine. “Blowing stuff up got me out of so many jams on Earth,” he explains.
- That being said, Jason’s first instinct that this has all been one big prank show turns out to be essentially correct.
- Tiya Sircar has been great as Real Eleanor, somehow making her too-good-to-be-true selflessness seem appealing and not cloying. So when she (her real name’s Vicki) tells the four humans to suck it, it’s funnier than it’d be otherwise.
- The one book Eleanor took with her is T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe To Each Other. I could lie and say I’ve read it, but I can’t spare the points.
- And that’s it for season one of The Good Place. Thanks for reading, everyone. And if NBC doesn’t give us a second season, I think we know what place we’re all actually living in, don’t we?