“It feels cozy, but also vibrant and limitless!”
Hi everyone. Come on in. Everything is fine.
The Good Place is back. And, taking a cue from Michael’s pep talk to Team Cockroach before Eleanor had to take over as the guiding force of this new and theoretically improved Good Place (lasagna over fro-yo seems a lateral move, really), here’s me to tell you that, though things may look rough ahead, Michael Schur and his team of TV architects have a plan.
Yes, there may be a few bumps on the way to the end of this fourth and final season. For one thing that naughty bitch Shawn is seen giving his own demonic team of “supercharged d-bag ass-wiping maniacs” his own anti-pep talk down in the Bad Place, promising to submarine Michael’s own plans before they begin. He even caps it off with a rousingly horrifying rendition of the Bad Place’s favorite anthem, a jingle earworm I will not be mentioning, lest I lose major points. And, on a more fundamental level, the first half of this two-part season opener suggests that, for all Michael’s gung-ho former-demon optimism, this new Good Place testing ground is already showing some serious cracks that threaten to swallow up our four humans, one demon, and a Janet without Shawn’s opposite of help.
But, if The Good Place has shown us one thing in three stellar seasons of television, it’s that blowing up the status quo is, in the hands of Schur and company, an invitation for even more imaginatively interesting and hilarious stuff to take its place. So…
Everything is fine.
“A Girl From Arizona, Part 1” might suffer a little from season-premiere exposition fatigue, but that’s part of the gig when you’re redefining the rules of an entire comic-cosmic universe from one week to another. Here, we see the Good Placers hunkering down to administer Judge Gen’s all-important test. (“Good luck saving humanity from eternal doom,” says Neutral Place accountant Matt officiously, having been shifted over from the Weird Sex Things department to tally the new human arrivals’ point totals from inside a glowing obelisk in Mindy St. Clair’s living room.) We meet the two final human subjects, joining Simone and John, and quickly discover just why Shawn thinks they’re the perfectly imperfect specimens to prove that humanity simply cannot improve. (More on them in a moment.) We see that Simone (thank whatever that Kirby Howell-Baptiste looks like a regular again this season) has stubbornly fallen back on her scientific background to interpret all of the splendors Janet can whip up (including Eleanor’s late ad-lib of a popcorn river) as just, as she puts it happily, “a hallucination created by my damaged brain as it slowly shuts down.” (Cue an episode’s worth of Simone gleefully wrecking the joint and dressing in giant foam fingers and a cheesehead hat while she waits to see if her actual body wakes up or finally dies.)
And then there’s Janet and Jason, whose improbable (not to say ludicrously impossible) relationship is destabilized by the dual strains of Janet stretching her abilities into the red to keep this new Good Place viable, and what can only be described as the return of Maximum Derek. The inherently haywire Derek (once more, thank whoozits that Jason Mantzoukas seems to be a major player this season as well) keeps popping in to look amazing in a tux, fail at making a fancy cocktail (one is just a whole onion in a martini glass, stabbed through with an olive on a skewer), and taunt Jason about his part in assisting former “mommy-girlfriend” Janet in creating all the fake humans populating Janet’s new Good Place. “I made all the butts!” Derek crows triumphantly in response to the jealous Jason’s accusation that he hardly did anything.
And all that’s before the third-act reveal that one of the new humans, an infuriatingly uninterested older woman named Linda Johansson (Rachel Winfree), is actually Bad Place dimwit demon Chris (still shirtless under the old lady suit) in disguise. As reveals go, the sight of this heretofore barely animate senior citizen hauling off and socking Eleanor and Michael in their kissers and then soaring into the sky to clobber some unsuspecting flying Good Place simulacra is the sort of unexpected swerve The Good Place is wont to throw at us. (And Shawn getting called out by Gen for his chicanery calling himself a “rascal” is Marc Evan Jackson at his finest and driest.) But there was already a problem with this new crop of human subjects that such an early and abrupt switcheroo only makes more glaring.
That the fate of the universe rests on the ability of four brand-new deceased humans to replicate the stumbling but legitimate improvement Chidi, Eleanor, Jason, and Tahani made is about as sensible a plan as you’re going to get from a moral system where Janets can whip up baby elephants made of pure light that reveal universal truths. (Shirley Temple killed JFK, apparently.) But the monumental task of establishing four new characters for us to invest in in this woefully short final season has always been questionable. It doesn’t help that Brandon Scott Jones’ gossip blogger, John, is a bit too accurately vapid and annoying as, essentially, Twitter made flesh. (“Okay, well I’m gonna do a loop, see who gets me,” he brushes off a crowd at Tahani’s welcome party.) And the other new guy doesn’t help matters, as final arrival Brent Norwalk is played by character guy Benjamin Koldyke, whose considerable talent at embodying smug alpha-male jerks is all too in evidence here.
The sort of #MeToo nightmare relieved that death has freed him from numerous sexual harassment suits, and who prefaces something empirically racist by proclaiming himself “the furthest thing from racist,” Brent is a guy whose belief that being an “equal opportunity offender” shields him from being called out for just being a dick. Brent accepts his apparent eternal reward as only right and just for someone who expects a medal for patronizingly adopting “politically correct” language, and sneeringly drops the existence of a female Captain Marvel as evidence that women got what they wanted and should shut up about it now. (“Is there golf here? There freakin’ better be,” Brent says, moments after two supposed angelic beings informed him that he’s been admitted to heaven, essentially.) If, as Eleanor muses to Michael as Brent struts through the neighborhood unimpressed at his newfound good fortune, Shawn picked people intended to torture each of the original four humans specifically, macho prick Brent is exactly the right choice to drive Eleanor Shellstrop to distraction.
Honestly, he’s enough to drive me there, too, a risky but not untenable move for The Good Place as we move toward the final, season-long showdown for all of humanity. On the one hand, Brent’s exasperatingly predictable brand of toxic self-absorption (as opposed to Tahani’s more entertaining self-absorption) is trying to listen to, plunked down as he is in the Good Place. (Bragging at Tahani’s party about being in the “top half of the bottom half” of his Princeton class, he’s essentially Andy Bernard covered in MAGA buttons.) And while it does make sense for Shawn to have picked such a creep in order to doom all of humanity with his boorish, sexist bloviating (after all, serial killers and boy-band managers were off the table), it’s a gamble as to whether The Good Place can make watching him in any way entertaining. Even Michael checks out, taking advantage of his new position as Eleanor’s assistant to respond to one of Brent’s remarks by mumbling, “Oh, I’m not part of this,” before slipping away.
That said, if there’s one element of The Good Place that hasn’t always been consistently clear, it’s stakes. Sure, we hear plenty of talk about the Bad Place’s use of butthole spiders, penis flatteners, and, tonight, Michael’s fond reminiscence of “mouth fleas,” but the show has shied away from much of the real horror awaiting Team Cockroach (and, you know, all of us) should any of their various gambits fail. I appreciate that we’ve only ever really seen the middle-management side of hell, with it’s dude-bro torturers, skin-suited yes-demons, and oubliettes full of never-ending New Yorker issues, and Michael’s one comment to the gang about not straying into the Bad Place proper carried a subtle tang of genuine menace to it. (That burst of tormented screaming Janet played for Chidi and Eleanor back in the pilot remains the purest echo of just how bad the Bad Place might be.)
But with Brent seemingly on board for the duration (unlike that sneaky Linda), The Good Place is letting loose a real, completely un-endearing asshole in the Good Place, and it’s going to be interesting to see how, or if, he can be integrated into the show’s world. (Same goes for John, although his bitchy malevolence is easier to ignore.) It’s a fair move, and a bold one—if Shawn wants to prove that humanity sucks, he couldn’t have picked a better, more mundanely insufferable example than Brent Nowalk. And, as The Good Place has proven again and again, Schur and his own Brainy Bunch (“A Girl From Arizona, Part 1” is credited to Andrew Law and Kassia Miller) have a way of snatching comedy gold from even the least promising-looking voids.
It’s also a bit disappointing about Linda. The thought of the Bad Place choosing someone so completely checked-out and bereft of joy suggested a potentially interesting exploration of a completely different sort of human failing that Chris’ peremptorily violent reveal snuffs out. This leaves the experiment in multiple dangers. On one hand, Gen’s willingness to punish Shawn by making the memory-wiped Chidi the fourth subject we all knew he’d wind up being undercuts the potential frisson of three completely new characters (plus the ever-delightful Simone) being our avatars in this final adventure in human evolution. That’s okay, I suppose, especially considering what duds Brent and John are at this point, but it does put The Good Place on track for a certain sameness going into the final lap. For another, it makes our investment in the Eleanor-Chidi-Simone relationship of equal importance to the broader peril the show set up at the end of last season. Once more—stakes.
Am I grousing? A little. But The Good Place has conditioned us to expect such a high level of moral, intellectual, storytelling, and comedic excellence in its first three years that any trembling of the Janet-created earth under our feet feels like a warning. Of course, that same conditioning has taught us to trust that Schur and his people will pull off some impossible Hail Mary escape just when it looks like they’ve written themselves into the inescapable TV Bad Place of “not as good as it used to be.” So I’m here to say it’s forking wonderful to have The Good Place back, and here’s to seeing how and where it surprises us.
Everything is fine.
- We’ve seen that obelisk before, although not as aptly described as in Mindy’s calling it “Darth Vader’s turd.”
- Peter Sarsgaard burn! (Peter Sarsgaard is a wonderful actor. Check out The Dying Gaul.)
- Simone’s idea of goofy, over-the-top blue eye makeup is strikingly similar to Mindy’s everyday Medium Place look.
- The mind-wiped Chidi is so adorably happy at his new digs, what with their floor-to-ceiling bookcases that summon his favorite philosophy tomes to his hand like Mjölnir. His excited, “Reading lights! I love reading lights, they are great for reading!” is the most Chidi thing Chidi has ever Chidi-ed.
- Match that with Kristen Bell’s subtle work as Eleanor squires her former love around the neighborhood. That little hitch in her voice as she reminds Chidi of her name is heartbreaking.
- “Oof. I mean ‘cool-ff,’” is Michael’s game attempt to cover up his response to that one.
- Michael reveals that, during some of the reboots, there was a Disco Janet in the mix. “She was great,” he muses, “Well, she was a lot.”
- Eleanor, doing her best to put a good spin on Simone’s rampage (which Simone describes happily as “testing the rules of physics here in my nonsense brain jail”): “She’s getting all the cake-pushing out of her system.”
- Shawn, rallying his troops: “And who’s a bigger skidmark than Val?” Val: “Maybe your mom?” Shawn: “Classic.”
- Other rules we learn for the test: There’s a modified points system for the new arrivals, but nobody apart from Matt in his obelisk will be allowed to know the scores until the end.
- Everyone’s favorite sport of guessing what’s really going on continues to add tantalizing hints. Apart from Simone’s coma hypothesis, Jason’s immediate move to kill Derek (with Mindy’s glint-eyed encouragement) raises once more the thought that the test for the four initial humans has never really ended. Which would be bad news for Jason.
- “Attention! I have been Derek-ed!” is Derek’s recorded post-murder sky-announcement. “Murder has been me!”
- Another warning sign of impending trouble—the beleaguered Janet has gotten really good at passive-aggressive irony.
- Eleanor’s response to Shawn’s accusation that putting Chidi into the test is cheating is some pointed unnamed president-bashing: “You’re just falsely accusing us of what you actually did!”
- I call shenanigans at the very end of the episode. When Janet is escorting the demon-handcuffed Chris to the Bad Place Express, Michael makes a point of sending her off screen to secure him inside the train. That Bad Janet is there (and is a lot better at getting under Eleanor’s skin about her leadership abilities than her usual fart-based insults would be) suggests some Janet-based chicanery. I’m watching you, Good Place.