Holy forking shirtballs, benches. The fourth and final season of The Good Place is upon us? Are you forking kidding me!? (Apologies in advance because I will NOT be stopping this bit.) Strap yourselves in because the train to the Good Place is leaving the station! Our first stop is….
The Medium Place.
Which is where we left Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Michael and Janet at the end of season three. The Judge had decided that there will be one final experiment to decide, once and for all, if humans had the capacity to change and become better, thus allowing them access to the Good Place when they died. Conversely, if it’s proven that humans are not capable of improving (and potentially inherently bad and selfish) then they will all go to the Bad Place forever. It was also decided that the experiment would involve a new town created in the Medium Place (using Mindy St. Claire’s house as their home base.) The “Original Four” test subjects (Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason) are allowed to be present to help the new test subjects become better, but the Bad Place gets to choose the new humans coming in. The Bad Place is, of course, up to their usual dirty tricks and shenanigans. Aside from picking the humans that will be, not the worst humans, but the worst humans for the original group, they also created a “Michael Suit” for Demon Vicky to wear. The season three finale ends with Chidi deciding to sacrifice himself for the good of the experiment (and humanity) by having all of his memories wiped, including those of his relationship with Eleanor, so that he can best help the incoming humans. Oh and Michael has a nervous breakdown, leaving Eleanor to pick up the slack and take his place as Architect and team leader.
On to the first four episodes of season four! With no spoilers! Or at least, very minor ones, because hey, I’m a piece of shirt like that. A lot of parallels are drawn to the struggles and challenges facing our original four in season one. You have four newly dead humans who think they are in the Good Place even though they don’t deserve to be there. This time, the Bad Place has sent in: Simone Garnett (Chidi’s ex girlfriend), John Wheaton (a Perez Hilton-esque blogger that used to rip Tahani to shreds), Brent Norwalk (a white, male, millionaire CEO), and Linda. Linda seems to be just a boring, and extremely unimpressed, old woman. It’s clear that John has been sent specifically to torture Tahani, but is Simone there to make things harder for Eleanor or for Chidi? It’s unclear who Brent is targeted at, except maybe Janet because he sexually harasses her the same way he used to harass his secretaries. And is there something more sinister beneath Linda’s apparent blandness? Only time will tell.
A lot of Bad Place (and Medium Place) fan favorites are also present. Derrick and Mindy, Shawn of course, but also my main dink Bad Janet. We also get to see our original four try to learn from their past experiences (the ones they remember anyways) and try to use those lessons to help the newcomers to varying levels of success. It’s fun to watch the old patterns flipped on their heads or played the same but having wildly different outcomes. And I think that is really what makes this show so, for lack of a better word, GOOD. It can take the old moments and experiments and flip them totally on their heads just by introducing new players into the game. Because the show understands that each character has their own backstory, their own set of complications, complexes, and contexts that shape who they are. When Eleanor saw the giant flying shrimp and people screaming through the streets in yellow zigzag suits it made her feel guilty (and exposed) about being in a place she knew she didn’t belong, but that’s because she’s ELEANOR, with her mommy issues and selfishness and compartmentalization. Why would that trick work on anyone else but her? And this huge, broad premise that is the entirety of The Good Place – can people become better – works because it also understands that “people” as a whole, are also made up of highly complex (and fudged up) individuals. It manages to balance the broad philosophical queries with a highly nuanced look at what it means to be a (singular) human being. And so naturally what worked for Eleanor might not work for say, Brent Norwalk. This is shown with Tahani’s attempts to mentor John Wheaton. They both deal with their own issues of insecurity and jealousy, but Tahani is coming from a place of extreme privilege and wealth, whereas John is a struggling blogger, an outsider.
The acting remains incredible. Kristen Bell does a fantastic job as Eleanor. Looking back from season one Eleanor to now, it’s amazing to see the arc she has traversed. The core elements of Eleanor remain – she is still easily frustrated, impulsive, and very horny, but her worst impulses have been tempered. She is no longer so self centered (though the argument can be made that her core selfishness is still intact because saving humanity also includes saving herself), she doesn’t run away at the first sign of trouble, and she has really embraced the role of being a team leader. She still has her moments of weakness and fear, and Bell brings an incredible, gentle vulnerability to those moments. It’s such a stark contrast to her normal, brassy bravado that her fearful questioning of whether she really has what it takes to save humanity really rings true. After all, she is just one extremely ordinary human woman. William Jackson Harper is still great as Chidi, and it’s fun to see him back as season one Chidi, and how he interacts with, and is influenced by, season four characters. Ted Danson does a terrific job with Michael especially playing with the fact that no one, including the audience, knows if he’s really Michael or if he’s Vicky in a Michael suit. D’arcy Carden is a joy as Janet and Bad Janet, as always. Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto keep it going as Tahani and Jason. Jacinto in particular, has the challenge of playing the show’s broadest (and dumbest) character. I say challenge because it really is – managing to play that broad while still keeping your character grounded, and likeable, is a difficult tightrope to walk, and Jacinto walks it effortlessly. I think part of what makes his delivery work is that he is always one hundred percent sincere. His earnestness, even when saying the most ridiculous things (i.e. anytime he mentions Blake Bortles), and seriousness is what makes his lines land and the jokes work like gangbusters.
Overall, I think what makes The Good Place so successful is that it still, even four seasons in, doesn’t feel like anything else that has been or is currently on television. And that’s groundbreaking. It manages to take these really highly philosophical (and abstract) constructs, ideas, and concepts, and grounds them in such fun and accessible ways. Like, for example, how they explained the “Trolley Problem” (which has become a meme in its own right) and the impact it had on Chidi in particular. You see it echoed back in the choice that he made at the end of season three to sacrifice the one (himself) to save the many. The show throws out these high-falutin’ concepts, along with the philosophers who posited them, while at the same time filling the background scenery with food puns and having characters say things like “dink” and “forking shirt head” instead of swearing. (Which is also a clever way around network censors.) It serves the highbrow and lowbrow together in equal servings and with equally delicious aplomb which is so smart. It would be easy for a show like this to get lost in the highbrow and leave anyone who hasn’t taken a philosophy class (aka most people) out to dry. But instead it makes these huge ideas of: “how do I be a good person, what IS a good person, and is it actually possible to be a good person in society?” accessible and really forking funny.
It is also still one of the most surprising and unpredictable shows around. With the exception of the very first twist in season one (that they are actually in the Bad Place), it’s impossible to guess where the show is going next. An even greater achievement is that the show grounds these twists in the characters’ choices, so that even if the audience doesn’t see it coming when it happens, you look back and see that it shouldn’t have happened any other way. It manages to take these twists, turns, circle backs, and leaps in time and space a way that I don’t think the show has an arc so much as it is mirroring its own description of time. It’s moving along a “Jeremy Bearimy.” Which means, who knows what could happen next! What tricks will the Bad Place unleash? Who are the new humans? Will Eleanor and Chidi fall in love again? And most importantly, are human beings capable of becoming “good?” Or are we, as a species, doomed?
The final season of The Good Place premieres on September 26 on NBC at 9pm. Stay tuned for recaps and check out our SDCC roundtable interviews with the cast here!