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Josh Reviews The Good Place: Season Four

February 10th, 2020
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I’m not sure I am emotionally ready yet to bid a final farewell to The Good Place, which has been one of my most dearly-loved TV shows these past few years.  And with the beautiful, devastatingly emotional series finale, Mike Schur’s show about four dim bulbs in the afterlife who somehow become responsible for saving the fates of all humanity has cemented itself as one of my very favorite TV shows of all time.  The show was funnier than almost anything else on television.  It created a vast, Simpsons-like universe of supporting characters.  It had a main cast of brilliant actors doing the work of a lifetime, creating six characters who I grew to love incredibly deeply by the time the series ended, in the way that happens sometimes with special characters on special shows.  And, most important of all, The Good Place was a show with something to say.  This was a show that often tackled deep topics of ethics and morality and theology.  Again and again and again, it reminded us of the simple lesson that there is nothing more important in this world than simple acts of human kindness.  Who’d have thought, when the show began, how radical and how critically important that would be in our lives today.

Here in this fourth season, and especially in the poignant series finale, Mike Schur and his amazing team of writers brought this story to a deeply satisfying conclusion.  I am so pleased that the show was able to end on its own terms, at a time of its creators’ choosing.  The result is a beautifully complete four-season story, one that not only charts the personal journeys of our six main characters (the four human morons, plus immortal beings Michael and Janet), but also, in the end, the destiny of all mankind.

I love these characters, and I am now a fan-for-life of all of the wonderful actors playing these roles.  Let’s start with the two already-known stars.  I have, of course, been a fan of the great Ted Danson ever since the early days of Cheers.  One might have thought he could never top Sam Malone, but he has been amazing in a host of wonderful subsequent TV series.  One of my personal favorites was the noir-ish comedy Bored to Death.  But he has found yet another “role of a lifetime” here as Michael, the immortal being who designed and oversees the Good Place neighborhood in which our four human characters find themselves after they die.  At first, Michael seemed like a constant, unchanging character, but actually, his journey towards humanity has been one of the richest on the show.  Mr. Danson’s innate goodness shines through, and the man still has some of the best comedic timing around.  Kristen Bell became famous with Veronica Mars (a show I suspect I’d love, but that I must admit I’ve never seen) and has been a successful working actress for quite a while now.  Every inch of her star-power is on full display as Eleanor Shellstrop, the “Arizona dirtbag” who, slowly, learns to start giving a fork about other people.  This is a very nuanced role, as Eleanor starts out a jerk, but we have to like her and invest in her anyway; Ms. Bell nails that, and takes us along as we see Eleanor gradually become a better human being.  Eleanor is often called upon to be the straight-person among the loony-tunes who surround her, but Ms. Bell never lets that potential limitation bind her, and she’s able to constantly be so funny at the same time as she’s being very heart-felt.

I’d never seen the work of the other four actors in the ensemble before.  But, as noted above: fan for life.  All four were absolutely brilliant.  William Jackson Harper was so deliciously fun and funny as the uptight, indecisive paragon of morality Chidi Anagonye.  Mr. Harper could squeeze a huge belly-laugh moment out of the tiniest little grimace or weird sound that he’d make.  There have been many previous famous uptight comedic performances, but Mr. Harper has added to the pantheon and made Chidi so endearingly likable at the same time as he was acting in such an impossibly unlikeable manner!  It was amazing.  Jameela Jamil brought such dignity and strength to Tahani Al-Jamil, the condescending, name-dropping young-woman locked in a cycle of competition with her sister.  Ms. Jamil was often given mouthfuls of wordy dialogue, as Tahani recounted one celebrity-filled anecdote after another, and her delivery was never anything short of comedic gold.  Speaking of comedic gold, we come to Manny Jacinto, who was clearly born to play Jason Mendoza, the trash-fire of a Jacksonville, Florida native.  Like Homer Simpson before him, Jason seemed to be revealed as dumber and dumber as the series progressed, leading to moment after hilarious moment in which Mr. Jacinto’s delivery and body-language absolutely floored me.  At the same time, Jason turned out to be the heart of the show: an innocent, kind soul with unplumbed depths.  Few actors could have so skillfully portrayed both sides of the character.  Last but by no means least, we come to D’Arcy Carden, who played the all-knowing, not-a-robot, not-a-girl Janet.  This feels like it could have been the trickiest role of the series.  Janet is an omniscient, constructed being who is, on the surface, not human and without emotion.  And yet, Ms. Carden found a universe of nuance within the character in which to explore and play, and Janet gradually developed into probably the most human character of the bunch.  She was my favorite character among a group of six amazing characters, all of whom I loved deeply.  This is a testament to Ms. Carden’s amazing skill at both comedy and drama.  And I haven’t even mentioned how spectacular she was playing all the other versions of Janet!!!  (Not to mention all the other characters on the show, in the all-time-great third-season episode “Janet(s)”.)

Wow.  This was one of the most perfectly-cast TV shows in history.  This cast was a central reason why the show was so great.  Sniff, I miss them all already!!

If you haven’t seen The Good Place, I exhort you to give it a try.  Start from the beginning, and enjoy.  For everyone else, let’s dive into season four, shall we?

I will admit there were a few problems in the first half of season four.  The arc of the new experiment with new subjects that unfolded over the first half of the season was occasionally frustrating.  I understood the plot reasons for this new development — and by the end of the series, it all fit together extremely well — but at the same time, diverting focus in the show’s final season to a bunch of new characters was a risky move.  Even well-executed, as it mostly was, it was hard not to be a little frustrated at any time taken away from the show’s main characters here in the final run of episodes.  Also, Brent (Ben Koldyke) and John (Brandon Scott Jones) were purposefully designed to be difficult-to-like characters, which magnified the problems.  It was great to see Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) back, but while she was so great in season three, Simone was somewhat sidelined here.  The show didn’t make quite as much of a meal out of the Simone-Chidi-Eleanor love-triangle as I’d expected, and many of the important steps in Simone’s & Chidi’s relationship seemed to take place off-screen, which was a curious choice.  Meanwhile, the brainwashed Chidi was also sidelined from the main action, so much of that first half of the season felt like a holding pattern as we waited to get our “real” Chidi back.  I certainly still found a lot to enjoy in this first batch of episodes in season four — they continued to be funnier and cleverer than almost anything else on TV.  It just wasn’t quite what I’d expected for or hoped for from the start of the show’s final season.

Fortunately, once the experiment concluded (on the very dramatic moment of Brent just about to maybe, just maybe, actually express a drop of remorse for his boorish behavior), everything clicked nicely into place, and it was a wonderfully smooth ride straight through to the finale, with the show operating at the top of its game.  There were so many incredible, memorable moments:

* Certainly at the top of the list is Chidi’s moment of revelation: “There is no answer… but Eleanor is the Answer.”  I get chills just typing that.  What a beautifully romantic moment, one that works both as a culmination of Eleanor and Chidi’s relationship and also to the show’s questioning of the meaning of life and human relationships.  Season one presented the idea that every human being has a soul mate, but that was eventually revealed as a ruse of Michael’s.  Not every person’s story is about finding their “true love”.  (One of my favorite aspects of the series finale is how Tahani’s story, for instance, doesn’t wind up being about finding someone to spend eternity with.  More on the finale below.)  But for Chidi and Eleanor, the key to their salvation was finding one another, and the moment in which Chidi unfolded his note to himself was one of the most beautiful and touching moments in the entire series.

* Speaking of Chidi, I loved learning more about Chidi’s origin in “The Answer”.  And I was super-delighted by the newly competent, decisive Chidi we saw after Michael integrated all of his hundreds of lifetimes together in his consciousness!!  That was a fun new spin on this character, and not only was William Jackson Harper fantastic at playing this energetic new Chidi, but I loved how great Kristen Bell played how much this new Chidi turned her on.  So sweet and so funny!!  I love that it was ethics professor Chidi Anagonye, ultimately, who had to solve all of the problems in the afterlife.  That was perfect.

* I loved Kirsten Bell & Ted Danson’s recreation of Mr. Danson’s end-of-season-one evil laugh at the end of “Help is Other People,” when they nudge Chidi into realizing he’s being tortured — just as Eleanor once did — in a last-ditch effort to save the experiment.

* I loved getting to meet a new Janet — Disco Janet!! — and I loved the Janet revolt!  That was a great payoff to all of the development of all of the Janets over the course of the series.

* After a number of funny references to Justified, it was a hoot to see Timothy Olyphant explain things to the Judge (Maya Rudolph, deliriously funny) in “You’ve Changed, Man”.  I also really loved the trip inside the different Janet voids in that episode.  And we might have gotten my very favorite Good Place fake store name this episode, in “Joanie Loves Tchotchkes”.  Brilliant.

* I loved seeing our gang get to actually take a balloon to the real Good Place at the end of “Mondays, Am I Right?” (as opposed to the fake one from back in season two).  I also loved Jason’s list from that episode of the people who he figured must have the highest point-totals in human history: “Evel Knievel, Kool-Aid Man, Mini-Me, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Fat Bastard, the Most Interesting Man in the World, and the GPS lady who tells you where to drive.

* Lisa Kudrow was amazing as Hypatia of Alexandria in “Patty.”  What a perfect piece of stunt casting here at the very end of the show.  I loved the idea in that episode that eternal joy would be just as much torture as eternal pain.

And then we come to the series finale, “Whenever You’re Ready.”

* I thought this was a beautiful, poignant conclusion to the series and to the characters’ journeys.  I was so happy with the resolution given to each character, and I must admit I I started crying as soon as Jason assembled his friends, and pretty much didn’t stop until well after the end of the post-finale Seth Myers special with the cast.  (Their toasts to one another were lovely.)

* I was pleased that, while the ending given to each character felt completely “right,” the show nevertheless continued to surprise me as the finale unfolded.  I thought the show would end with the four friends walking through the final door together.  Then, as soon as I saw Jason get that faraway look in his eye after his video-game controlled Blake Bortles scored a TD, I figured we’d be watching them each decide to do so, one at a time.  I was wrong again.  (And happy to be so!)

* In a post-finale interview with Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall, Kristen Bell said she wants someone to read Chidi’s “waves” speech to her on her deathbed.  Fuck, now I do too.  Here’s the speech:  “Picture a wave.  In the ocean.  You can see it, measure it: it’s height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through.  And… it’s there.  You can see it.  You know what it is.  It’s a wave.  And then it crashes on the shore, and it’s gone.  But the water is still there.  The wave was just a different way for the water to be… for a little while.   That’s one conception of death, for a Buddhist.  The wave returns to the ocean.  Where it came from.  Where it’s supposed to be.”   That’s a forking lot of wisdom for a half-hour network comedy.

* Nick Offerman is in the Good Place!!  The scene of him teaching Tahani how to make a chair brought me so much happiness, I’m finding it hard to put into words.

* It was great to see the experiment subjects again (though, again, I wish Simone had a bit more to do).  That brief shot of Brent struggling to understand why he can’t tell a woman to smile was so funny.  I was so happy we got a few final additional moments with the Judge, Shawn, and Vicky again.  (Shawn’s extended “never ever ever ever” speech was brilliant, one final fantastic bit of business from the great Marc Evan Jackson.)  I loved seeing Pill boi and Donkey Doug again, and I was delighted to see a young Doug Forseth chowing-down in the Good Place!  I also laughed a LOT at the fantastic visual effect of a genie-like Derrick (with martini glasses orbiting his giant blue head like electrons around an atom) and Mindy St. Clair (Maribeth Monroe).  I also loved seeing the Doorman and his frogs.

* I loved the cameo by Ted Danson’s wife Mary Steenburgen as Michael’s guitar coach!  Brilliant!

* I figured the show wouldn’t answer its final question, of what happens to a person once they step through that final door.  But once again, I was wrong.  I was delighted by the final sequence, in which we saw a sparkle of light that was perhaps, once Eleanor Shellstrop, influence a guy to do a simple act of kindness: returning the letter to its rightful owner rather than throwing it in the trash.  I love that, even here at the very end, the show took the time to emphasize its central thesis: that nothing is more important than basic human kindness to one another.  And then, in a perfect final twist, we see that the letter was meant for Michael, who not only gets to delight in a bit of silly human mundanity, but who gets to pay off a wish we’d heard him make many seasons ago (all the way back in season one, episode seven), and tell the letter-bringer to “take it sleazy.”  What a silly ending for such a silly — and, at the same time, brilliant — show.

I am so sad that The Good Place is over; but I am so happy that it ended so perfectly.  (I’m doubly broken-hearted that the end of The Good Place also means the end of the magnificent The Good Place: The Podcast!!!  If you’re a fan of the show but you didn’t listen to the podcast — start now!!  I envy you all the joyous listening that lies ahead of you.  For me, my silver lining is that the end of The Good Place: The Podcast now means the launch of Brooklyn Nine-Nine: The Podcast!!)

Thank you to Michael Schur and all of the talented men and women who created this show.  I can’t wait to find the time to watch the whole thing all over again.

Take it sleazy.

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