TV & CULTURE

The Good Place—Blazingly Clever Yet Misfiring Series Comes to a Poignant End (Review)

February 25, 2020

Keely Tzoukos

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, whose work features prominently in The Good Place, famously wrote: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Unfortunately for audiences, this also applies to watching The Good Place. Only after you’ve endured the show’s dreary and shambolic final seasons, does it become clear that the earlier seasons were truly magnificent. Likewise, it’s only after the finale, as you find yourself surrounded by tear-stained tissues, that you connect emotionally with the series and its overarching message.

The Good Place shattered the conventions of the television sitcom when it debuted in 2016. The deliciously fresh, narratively ambitious series introduced us to “Arizona dirtbag” Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who, after being killed by a truck advertising off-brand Viagra, landed in “the Good Place” – the candy-coloured upper echelon of the afterlife, full of Earth’s most virtuous people (and a metric ton of frozen yoghurt).

An unscrupulous former telemarketer with a passion for cocktail shrimp and The Real Housewives, Eleanor quickly realised that she did not belong in the Good Place. Rather than turning herself in to Michael (Ted Danson), the marvellously stylish architect of the heavenly neighbourhood, she enlisted the help of her divinely-chosen soulmate, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), in a last-ditch attempt to become a better person and retain her place in eternal utopia. Chidi agreed to teach Eleanor and later opened his ethics classes to fellow rudderless residents: boastful socialite Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and impish goon Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). As tensions between the motley group of classmates boiled over in the first season finale, Eleanor had a mind-boggling revelation when she exposed Michael as a demon and delivered the merchandise-spawning line: “Holy mother forking shirtballs! This is the Bad Place.”

Needless to say, the first season of The Good Place was sheer brilliance, brimming with gasp-inducing twists and turns, whip-smart dialogue and thought-provoking philosophy. The second season continued to soar, as the humans, finding themselves in an alliance with Michael, tried to outwit the diabolical human-hating, penis-torturing foreman of the Bad Place. Continuously serving up bracing comedy, sugary-yet-heartfelt romance and complex concepts without an air of preachiness, the show succeeded on every level.

That was until season three hit our screens. All of the character progression that had occurred in the previous seasons was maddeningly undone when the show hit the reset button yet again, wiping the characters’ minds clean for the umpteenth time. With the group of humans left meandering on Earth, the show, which was once blisteringly fast-paced and out of this world, became decidedly static and dull. The first few episodes were especially tedious, as audiences were drip-fed a much weaker brand of comedy that relied on quirky Australianisms and frustratingly silly jokes delivered by dopey Jason.

By rebooting the characters, the writers also failed to explore new character journeys, instead damning the characters to the same developments of earlier seasons. This significantly diluted the core romantic relationships. For example, Eleanor and Chidi’s love story became quite stale, as it was merely explored through old clips from seasons one and two – such as the much-replayed scene where Eleanor first confesses her love for Chidi – which were inserted into the latter seasons. This was a lazy device used by the writers to engineer big heartfelt moments. Yet these more emotional scenes often fell flat due to the subsequently artificial, bland and treacly nature of their relationship.

D’Arcy Carden in the episode ‘Janets’, in which she flawlessly plays all the main characters.

Season three’s nauseating cheesiness and general lack of direction made keeping up with each week’s episode feel like punching a timecard; I watched half-heartedly, out of a sense of duty rather than enjoyment. Unfortunately, neither D’Arcy Carden’s stellar performance as Janet (AKA “Busty Alexa”), nor a soul-stirring, if microscopic, cameo from Li’l Sebastian, could redeem the season. (Not even Chidi’s “surprisingly jacked” torso allayed my bitterness, which left me asking “What have I become?!).

Sadly, this trajectory proved irreversible. Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of season four, the show’s final season, is that a good chunk of it focused on fundamentally unlikeable characters while glossing over the main characters we had grown to love/tolerate.

Despite the flaws of season four, and the series more broadly, I found myself inexplicably emotional during the finale. I cried as each character eventually ended their time in the Afterlife by stepping through the door, and I wept even harder when Eleanor’s spirit drifted down to Earth and found its way to Michael.

The finale showcases The Good Place’s ultimate strength: its ability to offer audiences a sense of hope, optimism and comfort, especially when dealing with painfully unanswerable questions about life after death. The final episode demonstrates that there is peace in the unknown and, in a nod to the show’s recurring adage, reassures you that everything is, and forever will be, fine.