[This contains spoilers for the Jan. 19 first season finale of The Good Place.]
“Hell is other people,” observed Daniel Holden, the often-stoic hero of SundanceTV’s Rectify, in the fabulous drama’s fourth season premiere.
Daniel, ever the wry observer, referenced Sartre’s No Exit in the context of trying to fit in with the other residents of the New Canaan halfway house. After 18 years spent mostly in solitary confinement, presumably most people’s concept of hell, the arc of Rectify found Daniel perpetually discovering both the advantages of being reintegrated into society, but also the sad irony of frequently being every bit as lonely surrounded by family and friends.
As writer and director, Mike Schur offered a more literal evocation of the No Exit line (and a more literal spin on No Exit in general) in the twisty and terrific first season finale of NBC’s The Good Place.
I could lie and tell you that I saw the twist coming and I’m sure many viewers did, but I did not. What I appreciated was how the twist fit in perfectly with a couple of my biggest questions about the show and its core premise. I didn’t respond with an, “I knew it!” but instead with, “Well that makes sense!” which is always my preferred way to greet a twist.
For 12 episodes, The Good Place was the story of Eleanor’s (Kristen Bell) attempts to make herself worthy of the heaven in which she found herself seemingly miscategorized, helped by ostensible soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and the marvelously generous Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and occasionally distracted and waylaid by similarly miscategorized Jason (Manny Jacinto). Eleanor’s struggles threatened to tear the Good Place apart and generated sadness and romantic conflict and confusion, but we were led to think that it was all being done in the name of ethical goodness and of protecting the perfect community constructed by architect Michael (Ted Danson).
As we learned a third of the way into the second half of Thursday’s (Jan. 19) hour-long finale, an episode titled “Michael’s Gambit,” Michael was actually an architect for the Bad Place, and this was his elaborate plan to let architects have more fun torturing the unworthy. And when I say “elaborate,” that’s an understatement, because the entirety of the Good Place, such as we saw it, was designed solely as a hell for Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi and Jason, who were selected specifically for personality traits that Michael hoped would cause them to torture each other for a thousand years. The only exception was Janet (D’Arcy Carden), an actual guide from a real Good Place community.
Eleanor was able to figure out Michael’s nefarious plot as the characters fought over which of them would make the ultimate sacrifice of going down to the Bad Place, a series of selfless choices that were all basically selfish, but all seemed to benefit Jason. In a season of perfectly executed reactions, Ted Danson’s malevolent laugh at being found out was a thing of beauty. Hell wasn’t some nightmare of fire and brimstone. It’s a group of people hand-selected to judge you and make you judge yourself, a group of people meant to trigger every insecurity you might prefer to keep hidden, meant to puncture every illusion you have of your own identity and your own goodness.
Unlike Eleanor, I wasn’t able to figure out the twist earlier in part because I never really thought The Good Place was heading toward a twist. In fact, I never really knew where The Good Place was heading from week to week, which was the source of its greatest pleasure. The pilot for The Good Place was one of my favorite pilots for the 2016-17 network season, but it also left me with many questions because I had no idea how the show was going to function on an episodic basis. It turns out that I was foolish to doubt Schur and the show’s creative team, because The Good Place unfolded with a very careful 13-episode arc and actually reached a conclusion that left me even more interested in a second season.
That just means that NBC needs to renew The Good Place, which has been doing better live (but not Live+3 Day) ratings than The Blacklist, a show NBC is so confident is a massive hit that it will get a spinoff this spring.
Get on that, NBC!
The big twist anticipated and worked with what had been probably my biggest worry about The Good Place this season: Nobody in the Good Place actually seemed all that good. Yes, the show began with Schur’s theological principles laid out in an intricate scoring system meant to determine who was or wasn’t worthy of permanent enshrinement, but I kept feeling like we weren’t being shown a lot of the virtue to Chidi and Tahani. Tahani may have given money and time to charity, but she did it only to outshine her perfect sister. We saw several episodes ago that Eleanor’s own attempts to run up a heaven-worthy score failed because she was doing good for selfish reasons, and I wasn’t sure why the show was ignoring Tahani’s flaws in this respect. Now I know. Similarly, while Chidi’s big book on ethical behavior was probably a fine endeavor, his inability to self-edit left the book unreadable, like when I write a 2,000-word review of a TV show I like. Pathological indecisiveness felt like an attribute that was incompatible with the amount of good that Chidi allegedly had done and didn’t seem to make him compatible at all with a person as good as Real Eleanor allegedly had been. Now I get it.
There are still things I don’t get.
Is the scoring system to get into the Good Place real? Because I fall pretty much in line with a lot of Mike Schur’s code of ethical behavior, I thought his scoring system was mostly reasonable, but what if all of those numbers were just an elaborate and arbitrary system of restrictions and mitzvahs that have nothing at all to do with what actually would or wouldn’t get a person into heaven? A more cynical person might say that that’s all most organized religions end up being at the end of the day, if you believe that eternal salvation is based on the results of some divine spreadsheet. As my paisan-in-arms Alan Sepinwall notes, the answer to this question depends on whether you believe that Michael was able to reprogram Janet, or if you think she was sticking to her original programming and that the score system was part of that. Since the show’s creator gave the evil architect his name, a lot also depends on how you think Mike Schur feels about himself and perhaps about the role of showrunner on a network TV show, which also can be subject to an arbitrary ratings system and set of standards and practices.
Speaking of … NBC still hasn’t renewed The Good Place, and they really should.
Another question, and one I always find myself asking in any extended con narrative: Is all this effort really worth it? Like I can see building out a complicated, elaborately cast backdoor torture community if you want to really mess with Hitler, Stalin, John Wayne Gacy and the guy who invented CD packaging in the ’80s, but Chidi, Tahani and even Eleanor and Jason are small potatoes. Even if most of the extras helping Michael push the torture boulder down the hill were making only the briefest of cameos, I need a better sense of the infrastructure that allows the Bad Place to be so profligate with its resources.
Maybe that will be a key plot point in the second season? As it stands, The Good Place did a thing I normally can’t stand in a way that I find really interesting in this case. It reset. Michael was able to convince Shawn, plausibly his big boss but more likely just another middle manager, to let him wipe Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason’s memories, dropping Eleanor back into the Good Place with a new, buff soulmate, one much less likely to teach her ethics. Only a note reading “Eleanor – Find Chidi” and hidden in Janet’s mouth will help her find her path back to knowledge. The second season, then, can repeat whichever of the tropes it wants to from the first season, but it can also delve into how much “goodness” is learned behavior and how much it’s innate. The Eleanor we left in the finale is, in theory, a “better” Eleanor than the one we first met, but if she doesn’t remember Chidi’s lectures, is her nature actually changed? It’s basically the same thing that Westworld was dealing with in its first season, only done with welcome levity and a deft touch. Janet and Thandi Newton’s Maeve would be fast friends. What makes us good? What makes us human?
I really hope we get to find out. The Good Place ends its first season as my favorite new network show of the year, just ahead of the charming, occasionally caustic, Speechless on ABC and in front of Dan Fogelman’s Pitch/This Is Us double. It was smart, meticulous and open to high-minded thought. Danson and Kirsten Bell were a great pairing, and Jamil, Jacinto, and Carden just kept getting better. And if you haven’t seen Paterson, which features the wonderfully flustered Harper, you really should.
So let’s get to renewing, eh NBC?