TV’s Best Show About Moral Philosophy, Cosmological Adventure, and the Enduring Hilarity of Fart Jokes Returns for a Final Season
When The Good Place first aired three years ago, I didn’t want to like it. Something about the promos, with Ted Danson beaming in a suit and bow tie, Kristen Bell’s doe-eyed expression of wonder, the vibrant color scheme, and something to do with the afterlife, all led me to believe that this was yet another hokey cash grab by a major network at the expense of religious people. I hadn’t seen a single episode, and yet I immediately wrote the whole thing off as a poorly-veiled reboot of Touched By an Angel. And with the state of modern television leaving us drowning in great shows to stream, I didn’t give it a second thought.
A few episodes into that first season, though, people whom I considered to be smart, funny, and even edgy, were raving about it. When I expressed my apprehension, they were quick to correct my misgivings. “Trust me,” they said, “It’s not what you think it is.” So I decided to give it a shot.
They weren’t wrong. The wholesome appearance that so turned my appetite in the promos turned out to be a deliberately clever ruse. Eleanor Shelltrop (Bell) is not, in fact, a cheery do-gooder, but a self-centered “garbage person” who winds up in heaven via clerical mistake. Season One chronicles her vain attempt to avoid eternal damnation by actually becoming a decent human being and, just maybe, proving that she deserves to be in the Good Place after all. To aid her efforts, she enlists a human waffle and moral philosophy professor Chidi (William Harper Jackson), an insufferable name-dropping socialite named Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason Mendoza, a dopey wannabe DJ from Florida (Manny Jacinto), none of whom seem like “heaven material,” alongside cosmic architect Michael (Danson) and an afterlife informational assistant named Janet (D’Arcy Carden).
The crew’s attempts to weasel out of their predicament have increasingly catastrophic effects on the neighborhood, much to our amusement. One day giant frogs and jumbo shrimp fill the sky, the next an enormous sinkhole threatens to devour them all. Hell literally breaks loose and exasperation abounds to a symphony of faux profanity. Because you can’t cuss in heaven, the show treats us to goofy substitutional phrases like “holy forking shirtballs, ash-hole!,” a fun recurring gag that quickly became one of the show’s hallmarks.
The big reveal at the end of the first season (SPOILER alert) comes when Eleanor discovers that they were never in the Good Place to begin with, but rather the Bad Place. Their buddy Michael had in fact engineered this entire afterlife experience around Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani torturing each other for eternity, a clear nod to Sartre’s No Exit. As season one ends in one of the better twists in New Millennium sitcom writing, we’re left to wonder, “where in the universe do we go from here?”
Some Hugging, Some Learning, Lots of Farting
The Good Place works for a number of reasons. First is that it’s what I’ve come to call the “anti-Seinfeld” factor. Famously, Larry David insisted that every episode of Seinfeld adhere to a strict “no hugging, no learning,” policy. That show concluded with all four garbage people going to jail for being despicable. The Good Place upends this by taking another basket of deplorables and having them try to become better people.
Yes, there is plenty of hugging and learning. But unlike in more commonplace, uplifting spiritual programming like God Friended Me, the writers of The Good Place allow the show to access the complexities of centuries-old moral philosophy conundrums, while at the same time illuminating in gleeful detail what makes crappy human beings so crappy. Hint: If you take both your shoes *and* socks off on an airplane or manage to kill a manatee with a jet ski, you might be headed to the Bad Place.
The Good Place deftly takes thorny ethical dilemmas and expansive questions of cosmology and human purpose that 99 percent of American viewers would consider snooze-worthy, and drops them into an infinitely wacky setting. As soon as we begin to tire of emotional growth, we get Michael kicking a puppy into the sun, or delightfully bizarre bits that could only exist in the afterlife, like frozen yogurt that tastes like a full cell phone battery makes you feel and soda fountains that dispense shrimp.
The great thing about creating your own universe and teleological system is that you can bend it to your own narrative and humorous needs, and lest we get bogged down in Heigel or Kant, there are plenty of fourth-grade scatalogical jokes to go around. A reference to Hume’s “Treatise of Human Nature” might be swiftly followed by characters taunting each other with jabs like “eat butt, ya ding dong,” punctuated by a fart joke. It’s a strange balancing act, but for some reason, it works, allowing the show to be deep enough for us to actually invest ourselves emotionally in the main characters, and laugh at the juvenile goofiness of the whole scheme. Also, the brilliant idea to make Jason a proud Jacksonville native is a comedic wellspring that has yet to run dry. Ripping on Florida will never get old. Trust me, I was born in Gainesville.
The Good, the Bad, and the Medium
After Season One’s big reveal, Season Two of the Good Place had Michael “rebooting” his torture experiement hundreds of times, only to have Eleanor discover the truth in every scenario, which Michael hides from his bad place bosses, led by the delightfully dickish Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson). With continued failure and facing a terrible “retirement,” Michael eventually joins forces with the four humans on a cosmic romp through various sections of the afterlife.
This is where the show really comes into its own, as we get to see a more expanded view of this universe, including the Medium Place and, best of all, a cocktail party in The Bad Place, a situation ripe for comedic potential that doesn’t go to waste. Between Dax Shepard’s paragon of toxic masculinity and Adam Scott’s glorious douchebaggery, the writers clearly had a ball sending the people they most despise to hell. Dante did the same thing in The Divine Comedy, albeit with fewer playful groin punches and lines like, “I’m gonna take a dump, want me to bring you back some?” The season ends in a standoff with Michael, Janet and our humans on one side, the forces of evil on the other, and Maya Rudolph’s cosmic judge to decide their fate.
Season Three was the weakest, as the four humans head back to life on earth to see if all the hugging and learning they experienced post-mortem 800 times actually made them better people without even knowing it. After the joyful craziness of the afterlife, actual life seems considerably more dull, even though we get some good backstory on the characters lives and deaths, and a few great guest spots to boot. I particularly enjoyed Jason’s dad, “Donkey Doug,” and Eleanor’s mother, Donna Shellstrop, as well as an always-satisfying Michael McKean as a pitiful paragon of virtue. But those can hardly compare to setting in which literally anything is possible, from turning thought experiments into actual experiments with horrifyingly gruesome results, to Janet barfing pennies. That’s a hard act to follow.
Fortunately, we get to head back to our original setting for the fourth and final season, which finds a final showdown between Michael’s team of humans and Shawn’s coterie of bureaucratic hellspawn over the fate of our four main characters, and, to a large extent, all of humanity. Turns out, the whole “point system” that the afterlife uses to send people to their fate has been inherently flawed for centuries, and it’s up to our heroes to save all humans from eternal damnation. I’d call that a pretty high-stakes game, and my hope is that it will lead to some great drama and even greater hilarity. Only one episode in, and already The Good Place has treated us to a drab granny on a flying punching spree and a baby elephant composed of pure light that tells secrets of the universe, (“Shirley Temple killed JFK!”).
It’s a good start, and it should be fun to see how Good Place showrunner Michael Schur and company wrap up this cosmic burrito. My only hope, and a prediction out of the gate, is that after spending plenty of time in the fake Good Place, the Medium Place, the Bad Place, and all points between, including the Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes, we finally get a glimpse of the real Good Place. Whatever happens, it’s been a hell of a romp through this version of the cosmos, one I’m sure sitcom nerds like me will be talking about for years to come. And if you’re worried about the potential for a disappointing or lackluster finale, don’t fret. Just remember where you are.
Everything is fine!