A review of tonight’s The Good Place season finale coming up just as soon as I whip empty spray paint cans at flamingos…
Like most of the sitcoms Michael Schur has worked on, The Good Place wasn’t as great at the start as it became later. But where The Office, Parks and Rec, and even Brooklyn Nine-Nine needed a bit of time to fine-tune themselves and correct things that weren’t quite working, season two of The Good Place has been wonderful in large part because of the hard and occasionally thankless work that season one did. This season has been funnier, crazier, more surprising, and more audacious, but only because the show’s first year spent a lot of time explaining how the world worked and what made each character tick. The flashbacks to life on Earth, for instance, were rarely as satisfying as what was happening up in the neighborhood, but they helped us understand the many flaws that brought Eleanor and the others together — the Chidi flashbacks proved enormously valuable in hindsight once we discovered that this was really the Bad Place — and the sheer amount of time establishing that, as well as the rules of the afterlife itself, allowed season two to move from an amble to a sprint in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if season one had been trying to race, too. The only reason a Groundhog Day-style episode covering hundreds of reboots works is because we have a baseline knowledge of who and what is important, so the show had the freedom to just get to the jokes, boom boom boom.
We’ve been sprinting all the way through season two, shedding status quos like frocks that Tahani would only wear once. One reboot became many reboots, became the gang and Michael learning ethics in secret, became Shawn shutting down the whole experiment, became the gang enjoying some time in the neighborhood without any evil demons, became a quick stop in the proper Bad Place, became their appeal to Judge Jen. No dragging of feet, no attempts to extend any one idea past its optimal comic utility in hopes of keeping the show itself around longer. We know the rules and we know the players by now, so just go til you drop.
Michael sending the gang back to Earth to prove they can become better even without knowing that an eternal reward in the Good Place awaits them — “moral dessert,” as philosophers sometimes call it — isn’t as shocking a change as the season one finale’s revelation that the neighborhood is part of the Bad Place, nor even some of this season’s abrupt shifts in direction. This seemed inevitable, because the point system is based on what each character does with their time on Earth, and also because the show was starting to run out of metaphysical road, where the gang was either going to be tortured forever or rewarded forever. There’s still more story to tell in the afterlife — some of it suggested in the opening scene where Michael tells the Judge that the point system is “fundamentally flawed and unreasonable,” which means we could see some kind of Heavenly overhaul coming down the road — but a return to life itself made a lot of sense based on where the story has gone so far.
I have to admit: after 12 episodes of utter lunacy involving djinns with wind chime genitalia, Jake Jortles throwing Molotov cocktails, and Michael making Chidi endure the Trolley Problem again and again and again, “Somewhere Else” didn’t feel quite so giddy. But that was the point.
After the opening moments — which include Janet professing her love to Jason, prompting Chidi to in turn kiss Eleanor (more on that in a bit) — we’re no longer in the afterlife, and the rest of the gang’s not around anymore. This is just the story of Eleanor Shellstrop’s sad and lonely life — only now she’s inspired by what she thinks was a near-death experience to finally make something of that life. We don’t get to enjoy magic, don’t get to have Jason say something dumb or Tahani make a smug reference to knowing Maggie Smith, and only get the briefest of glimpses of Michael and Janet as they keep tabs on their four charges via stock ticker. In a way, this is The Good Place wrapping up a season with both funny bones tied behind its back, but “Somewhere Else” is much less concerned with jokes than in exploring the philosophical questions at the heart of the series: What do we value a a society, and what should we value? Is being good enough of its own reward? And, to borrow from one of Chidi’s favorite authors, what do we owe to each other?
Once Eleanor lands back on Earth, unaware of all she’s experienced, “Somewhere Else” isn’t hugely interested in jokes. Sure, it brings back Eleanor’s equally shallow roommates Brittany and Madison (aka Dress Bitch), along with her old boss Wallace, to add some humor in the margins, but their primary function is to serve as reminders of who Eleanor was before those shopping carts came barreling towards her, and to illustrate the challenges she faces in trying to reinvent herself as a better person. Though Chidi is the moral philosopher and Eleanor the con woman, she’s the one who grew the most and became the most Good during her time in Michael’s experiment, so it makes sense to focus first on her struggles to do the same back in the real world, unaware of all that’s happened and what’s at stake for her, so we can be cued up for just what a challenge it is as she unwittingly starts putting the band back together. We can get episodes focusing on Chidi, Tahani, and (hope hope hope) Jason’s own adventures next year, but Eleanor was where this story began, and where it made sense to return at this new phase of things. This was not a laugh riot, but it felt genuinely inspiring to see the montage of Eleanor trying her hardest, and then sad but unsurprising when she started slipping back into old patterns. The series is becoming something else, and a new foundation has to be laid, just like the one we got back at the start of season one.
I have some concerns, don’t get me wrong. Stripping away most of the magic (even if Michael or Janet can occasionally sneak in to give someone a nudge), and wiping everyone’s memories again, takes a lot of creative arrows out of the show’s quiver. But I’ve long since learned to trust what Schur and company are up to with this series, because they have an uncanny sense of when the latest phase of the story is about to outlive its usefulness. It may seem right now that we’re about to get a half-dozen episodes or more of the group slowly finding each other again on Earth, but that’s about the pacing we all expected when Michael did the first reboot, and look how long that actually lasted. I don’t expect to spend any more time back on Earth than is interesting, funny, and/or necessary to setting up whatever the next phase of the story is. Sooner or later — and almost certainly sooner — the group will be together again, along with Michael and Janet, challenging the rules and traditions of the Good and Bad Places not only for their own benefit, but for the benefit of, as Michael points out, the hundreds of millions of others who may be needlessly suffering.
After this great season of TV, I can’t wait to see what’s next, and to still somehow be surprised again and again by how quickly we tend to get there.
Some other thoughts:
* Like last year, Schur is going radio silent for the moment to let the audience consider on their own what the show becomes now. High on my list of questions: how long die-hard Cheers fan Schur had been waiting to write a scene where a character played by Ted Danson tended bar.
* Chidi and Eleanor’s kiss — and her disarmed, “Hot-diggity-dog!” exclamation when it was done — was charming, and Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper always work well together. Part of me, though, wishes the show had never decided they would be actual soulmates, rather than just fake ones that Michael put together to annoy one another forever. The idea of them becoming a couple feels a bit like the series trying to have its moral dessert and eat it, too: insisting that the humans should all become better for its own sake, while also holding out the idea that these two will get to spend eternity being cute together if they can only convince The Powers That Be to let them.
* That Michael and Judge Jen were able to send the humans right back to the moment of their deaths, and that Michael and Janet were then able to follow their progress in real time, suggests that time in the show’s afterlife doesn’t progress in the same way it does for us here. This would allow for all the contemporary pop culture references that Jen and the various Bad Place people keep making, even though Michael explained back in “Dance Dance Resolution” that hundreds of years had passed for him during all the reboots.
* Also, Schur’s Patriots wound up taking him off the hook (at the moment) for Michael’s insistence that the Jaguars will never win the Super Bowl, but depending on how much time the characters spend back on Earth (this episode spans a year in Eleanor’s life), it’ll be fun to see Jason react to his favorite team’s remarkable success in 2017.
* One of the afterlife conceits introduced in the pilot is that nobody has accents — or, at least, that everyone hears everyone else speaking in a language and accent that sounds natural to them — and that Tahani’s ability to still sound English was one of the many things about her that annoyed Eleanor. There weren’t accents in the non-Tahani season one flashbacks, either, which at the time I was willing to write off as them being filtered through the lens of the afterlife, in the same way that, for instance, we hear the Russian sailors in The Hunt For Red October speaking English for the bulk of the movie. But now that we’re unquestionably in the real world, Chidi still has an American accent. I wouldn’t want to force William Jackson Harper to do a fake Nigerian or Senegalese accent at this stage of things, but I wonder if we’re going to get a line of dialogue next season explaining it, or if this is another thing we’re just meant to go with.
* Maya Rudolph remains a delight as the Judge, particularly in the way she makes clear how exciting she finds all of this, even as she’s skeptical that the gang deserves the promotion they’re all angling for.
* Schur definitely enjoys characters delivering rambling plot summaries of movies and TV shows. Leslie and Andy both did it at different times on Parks and Rec, and here Eleanor tells Michael all about the story of Kangaroo Jack. As a recapper myself, I approve.
What did everybody else think?