What the Fork Just Happened on The Good Place?
Michael Schur’s (Parks and Recreation) latest show The Good Place, which premiered at the tail end of last year and wrapped up one night before the 2017 presidential inauguration, follows the newly deceased Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) as she lands in Heaven… by mistake.
Asshole extraordinaire in life and now desperate not to be turned over to Hell (the Bad Place), Eleanor manages to convince her mismatched soulmate, the eternally-vexed former ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), to teach her the basic rules of virtue and goodness so that she can spend the rest of her posthumous life in the Good Place with the rest of the world’s top-tier do-gooders. Along the way they meet Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a constantly-malfunctioning afterlife customer service robot, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a pseudo-philanthropic attention monger, Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), a Floridian wannabe-DJ who pretends to be a monk to disguise the fact that he doesn’t actually belong there either, and, of course, Michael (Ted Danson), the angelic architect behind their neighborhood in all it’s pleasures (namely, frozen yogurt).
Oh, and, did I mention that the finale throws all of that out the window?
Having confessed her falsehoods to the entire neighborhood and to Michael, Eleanor and her friends struggle to convince the bureaucrats of the afterlife to give her a chance at staying in the Good Place. Eleanor, they argue, has learned enough from Chidi that she is now “good” enough to deserve a spot here. But as she realizes, after the four friends get into a pointless and frustrating argument, they aren’t in the Good Place at all. They have been in the Bad Place the whole time.
When Eleanor makes this realization known, it’s Ted Danson’s sinister chuckle that gives away her victory: Michael’s posture and expression goes from goofy bureaucrat to devilish prankster. In a format that harkens back to Lost, The Good Place sets aside B-plots to reveal characters’ backstories, and the finale (aptly titled “Michael’s Gambit”) takes the opportunity to go into Michael’s history. We follow our wide-eyed architect as he gets promoted from assistant to architect, as he has a revelation that he can make the afterlife more fun by living in the town with the dead, as he gets told by a coworker not to make waves at their paradise-manufacturing firm. These scenes portray Michael as the fresh-faced idealist we’ve grown to love him as, but the scenes after Eleanor’s revelation are much truer to his devilish nature: Michael explains to a group of other afterlife agents that he devised a setup whereby Tahani, Jason, Chidi, and Eleanor will torture each other for all eternity. He gives instructions to other townspeople about ways to annoy the four friends. Aided by flashbacks to earlier episodes, we see how he purposely belittled their self-esteem and foiled their ambitions.
And now, since his guinea pigs have figured out his plan, he’s got to wipe their memories and start all over in order to impress his boss, the demon Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), who took a chance on his inventive project in the first place.
Just as all seems lost, Eleanor has one more stroke of genius and scribbles something on the title page of What We Owe To Each Other, a book Chidi had been using to teach her ethics which she had cradled close to read in her loneliest moment only one episode before. She folds the paper, shoves it in Janet the non-robot-robot’s mouth (“You can’t eat anything, can you?”), and faces Michael with a bravery that is all the more courageous because of what comes next–Michael snaps his fingers and time rewinds completely. We’re back in Michael’s clean office lobby, and on the wall across from us is the comforting, if abrasively green, “EVERYTHING IS FINE.” Though Eleanor is none the wiser, there are a few minor differences: The yogurt shops have been replaced by pizza palaces, and Chidi has been replaced with the kind of man who would have distracted Eleanor for an eternity on earth–a hot mailman who looooves to work out.
In Eleanor’s first moment alone, Janet appears, startling Eleanor before handing over the folded piece of paper. When Eleanor opens it, all it says is an ominous, “Find Chidi,” and when she turns around to as Janet what it means, Janet is gone, and Eleanor is alone.
As almost any critic on the internet will tell you right now, this twist is ambitious, courageous, and refreshing. Most sitcoms take season one to stretch their legs, sure, but with this ending The Good Place has taken off at full sprint and barely had time to touch its toes. But season one took exactly the amount of time it needed, and pushed the plot forward just steadily enough to build a lovable case of characters and keep worldbuilding at the forefront. Now they’re poised to go into season two with all the necessities for an exciting and daring season of television.
Though The Good Place doesn’t necessarily have a real-world parody thing going on the way Parks and Recreation did, Shurr still understands how his work fits contextually into today’s modern anxieties. For one, The Good Place comments on anxieties of the tech world; Janet is basically an anthropomorphic Siri right down to how deeply frustrating it is when she fails to do something important. Michael has built a world that is supposed to run smoothly and yet continues to fail over and over again, which is the exact way it feels to write hundreds of lines of code for a website and be searching for the one out-of-place bracket that’s causing all the font to display as enormous. People in the Good Place can apparently access any memory they want to access for all time, even though we know that the brain is an imperfect hard drive in real life, which would actually be heaven for anyone who has permanently fixed their live to the Cloud.
The Good Place also accesses a political anxiety particular to our time. If Parks and Recreation gave us unbridled liberal optimism in the face of a do-gooder’s upward political battle, The Good Place utilizes this twist to give us something much darker. Gone are the days when frozen yogurt deliberation and cleaning up the streets were the Good Place’s biggest problems. Our heroes are now in a frightening netherworld controlled by demons determined to torture them, and worst of all, we the audience can see it happening but can’t do anything about it.
Most shows these days wouldn’t take this kind of risk, but The Good Place airs on the eve of a political revolution in America that most of the population–which some might call “the popular vote”–find hard to fathom and even harder to stop. But The Good Place throws its characters into the deep end and Eleanor has only one valuable piece of information to work with in order to navigate herself out of it. The future for Eleanor and her friends is sinister, but The Good Place finale is a message for the rest of us: evil hides under pretty suburban sidewalks, and can only be defeated if we trust ourselves enough to act.