Courtesy of NBC

February 2, 2020

‘The Good Place’ is Unparalleled in Ideas and Execution

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This article contains significant spoilers for the finale of The Good Place.

And so it ends, not with a supremely mind-boggling twist, nor with an all-out extravaganza of ethical erudition. Instead, arguably the greatest network sitcom of the past half-decade closes out its run with an hour-long parade of personal growth and exploration of meaningful relationships. For a series built on the basis of philosophical quandaries and human improvement, it feels naturally perfect.

The Good Place was never meant to last forever, ironically, given the developments of the final few episodes — we learn the real Good Place unendingly fulfills its inhabitants every desire, which eventually grows miserable. Creator Mike Schur’s story arc spanned just over 50 chapters, and as well thought out and designed as it may have been, it was executed even better. Very few shows can maintain a constant energy throughout its lifetime, and yet The Good Place never tires, never bores, never so much as delivers a skippable episode (I say this with all the love in my heart, but Parks and Recreation, my all-time favorite series, does have a few duds). Multimedia website The Ringer released a ranking of the first through penultimate episodes (the article was published prior to Thursday’s finale airing) and although I could not disagree with the order, I could not truly agree with it either. The episodes do not stand on their own; together, they tell a complete story and it would be foolish to try and list any separately.

I originally gravitated to the show due to its creative workaround of swear words (“motherforker”) but stayed because the plot and cast were so compelling. Led by the incomparable Kristen Bell (my personal celebrity crush) and veteran television star Ted Danson, the motley crew of an Arizona trashbag (Bell), anxiety-stricken ethics nerd (William Jackson Harper), literally the dumbest person alive dead (Manny Jacinto), British socialite (Jameela Jamil), demon (Danson) and not-a-robot (D’Arcy Carden) pace the audience through weekly philosophy lessons and other, more exciting adventures. Season four picks up at the onset of the gang’s desperate attempt to save humanity through a new experiment: a test of four freshly deceased humans to determine if people can truly improve after they die or deserve eternal damnation based on their actions while alive.

As television shows progress, characters often become caricatures of themselves (again, I hate dragging Parks and Rec through the mud, but Ron “This is an excellent rectangle” Swanson could have been dialed back a bit). Schur and his ensemble of incredibly talented writers, however, deftly avoid this pitfall in The Good Place. Not even Jacinto’s Jason Mendoza — the most “smooth-brained” person in the world — seems too ridiculous by the series’ end. We witness personal growth and moral development in all the characters as they struggle with human quandaries. The characters evolve naturally, and so too do their interpersonal relationships, which is really the essence of what the show explores. Michael (Danson) is a full-fledged fire squid demon in season one but ends the series on Earth, living out his life as a real human (named, of course, Michael Realman). In the series’ second episode, he laments the sweatiness of human bodies; in the finale, he marvels over Arizona’s dry heat. He has grown from wanting nothing more than to devise new ways of torturing humans to caring deeply about the friends he has made.

Not to be outdone, Bell’s emotional performance on the Artist’s Bridge in France is powerful and profoundly moving. Eleanor can’t bear to see Chidi leave the afterlife and merge with the universe, admitting that although she told herself that she wants to be alone, she’s happier with her friends. In that manner, her character growth is twofold: Eleanor no longer exists as a lone wolf without regard for those around her, and her acceptance of  Chidi’s wish to exit is the ultimate expression of her newly developed unselfishness. Just 3.22 Jeremy Bearimies later — and if you don’t know what that is, you shouldn’t be reading this — she is ready to leave as well.

Schur posits that humans are capable of improvement, but they need to be surrounded by people who can help them; in other words, friendship is the catalyst for moral amelioration. During the season three experiment where the four humans were back on Earth, they did not fully commit to being “good people” until they were united. The quartet collaborated 802 times across Michael’s “Good Place” reboots in season two and figured out his plan each of those 802 times. Simply put, the Soul Squad is better together than each member is, individually. Once everyone has left the afterlife, Eleanor sees no reason to stay either because her friends are ingrained in her very being: She tells Medium Place resident Mindy St. Claire, an embittered loner trapped in an unfulfilling existence, neither content nor fully miserable, that the two of them would be incredibly similar “if I never met my friends.” This fundamental tenet across Schur’s shows — the necessity of friendship — is indulged most heavily in The Good Place. Friends aren’t just people you can hang out with, but are essential in making you a better person.

One issue I have with the finale (besides it being the last episode of the series) is that even the Bad Place demons appear to become nicer. Glenn apologizes for getting goo on Tahani when he exploded eons prior and Shawn, a high ranking demon, becomes more cordial and inviting, albeit still with a slightly sinister tone. Are we to believe that even demons can ascend in their morality simply by not torturing humans? Is an ethically prosperous existence determined simply by not doing bad? It seems like an oversight that even the worst beings in the universe are good by the series’ end. That being said, I must admit that I quite enjoyed the snide comments and penis flattening references so prevalent in the Bad Place.

Schur frequently reuses tropes across his various sitcoms (The Office, Brooklyn 99, Parks and Recreation, The Good Place), and this finale feels vaguely similar to Parks and Recreation’s. The episode doesn’t try to introduce anything new or open up any extra storylines/plot holes (looking at you, Lost) and instead neatly wraps up each of its characters’ arcs in cute, on-brand moments. Jason plays the perfect Madden game, Tahani becomes an architect (which kind of comes out of left field, but it’s fine) and Chidi makes a definitive and final decision to leave.

The finale, while more somber and intensely relationship-driven than most of the rest of the show, still feels like a satisfying conclusion. There is an EDM dance number and enough jokes to fit the “Comedy” billing on IMDb, but The Good Place was never simply about food puns and physical humor. For four seasons, Schur considers what makes humans human: our flaws, imperfections and weird food preferences. And it all culminates in a beautiful episode neatly wrapping up an entertaining and thoroughly thought-provoking experience.

Jeremy Markus is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He currently serves as the assistant arts editor on The Sun’s board. He can be reached at jmarkus@cornellsun.com.