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Attempt No. 4: In the End, ‘The Good Place’ Goes Back to Basics

NBC’s existential sitcom about the afterlife has always been a tricky balance between abstract ideas and quaint packaging. And after skewing too far toward the former in Season 3, it’s recalibrating for its final installation.

NBC/Ringer illustration

The sitcom is, by nature, an intimate medium. Its most common subjects are insular worlds like the workplace, the platonic friend group, and the nuclear family. Its bite-sized episodes and extended seasons encourage making meals out of picayune problems, which basically sums up Seinfeld’s entire M.O. It’s an objectively awkward fit, on its face, for a story about human nature, redemption, and the moral architecture of the cosmos. But don’t tell The Good Place that.

From its earliest entries, The Good Place has mined this juxtaposition of big and small for laughs; the referee in its tug-of-war between heaven and hell, Maya Rudolph’s omnipotent Judge, frequently cites the prestige television she’s currently bingeing. But the mismatch between stakes and style also partially explains the rough patch the show went through in its third outing. In retrospect, the season was a transition between two phases of creator Mike Schur’s master plan: the first chronicling four mismatched souls sentenced to a version of hell that looks just like heaven; the second tracking that same group as they’ve evolved from solving their own predicament to making sure no one else ever has to endure it. In practice, The Good Place started to err too far on the side of its fantastical concept and away from the comforting amusements that once helped the philosophy lessons go down. As the characters ping-ponged from Earth to the Bad Place to the celestial Accounting Department, the show lost some of the soothing consistency that gives network sitcoms their enduring appeal.

The good news is that The Good Place has always had an endgame. Earlier this year, Schur announced that the show’s fourth season, premiering Thursday night, would also be its last. The Good Place has always been more serialized than the average broadcast series, enabling the now-infamous twist—“THIS is the Bad Place!”—that catapulted the show from curious novelty to critical darling. Such an emphasis on larger narrative has also led Schur to break television’s prime directive to make as much as you can, as long as you can. (Helping matters is that ratings, despite the show’s healthy second life on Netflix, have always been only decent, never spectacular.) Instead, The Good Place will end when it has reached the natural conclusion of the path it was on all along.

That path was never going to mire The Good Place in limbo forever. (That’s for Mindy St. Claire, the coke-addicted Wall Streeter whose unlikely good deeds landed her in the Medium Place for all eternity.) Instead, the earnest, civic-minded optimism Schur made his calling card with Parks and Recreation has broadened its target from a small town in Indiana to the entire organization of the afterlife—one particular corner of which happens to look like a small town. First, our heroine Eleanor (Kristen Bell) was a mediocre person accidentally sent to the Good Place; then, she was a mediocre person trying to maneuver her way out of the Bad Place; now, she’s a decent-and-getting-better person attempting to prove that human beings don’t deserve eternal punishment for living ethically compromised lives, because they’re capable of change even in death.

Getting The Good Place in a position to make this argument, both to the Judge and to viewers, required many of the narrative contortions that marked Season 3. The show’s central sextet—Eleanor, indecisive philosopher Chidi (William Jackson Harper), vain socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), dense Floridian Jason (Manny Jacinto), converted demon Michael (Ted Danson), and chipper assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden)—had to learn the full extent of the Good/Bad Place dichotomy’s dysfunction, which has doomed all of humanity to eternal torture since the Middle Ages. They also had to design a case study for the theory that their ability to learn from one another wasn’t just a fluke. Conveniently, that case study looks a whole lot like the show at its charmingly simplistic start: four new not-great-but-not-terrible humans, let loose in an ersatz Good Place stage-managed by Eleanor herself.

There are some role reversals in this slightly tweaked version of The Good Place, set up in last season’s finale and picked up seamlessly in Thursday’s premiere. Eleanor has effectively taken over from Michael as the face of the operation, swapping in Bell’s cheery pep for Danson’s soothing rasp as the face of (kinda-sorta) God. The goal of the deception is no longer for subjects to torture one another with their complementary flaws, but to teach one another through their complementary strengths. And with Eleanor and friends now running the show, the experiment that will decide the fate of billions of souls has a new group of subjects, plus a memory-wiped Chidi: There’s a Perez Hilton–like celebrity blogger; a characteristically confident mediocre white man who thinks he earned every cent of his inherited wealth; and Chidi’s neuroscientist ex-girlfriend, whose presence occasioned the memory wiping.

But apart from this musical chairs, The Good Place’s final season feels like a more evolved incarnation of its first. Such a full-circle structure is an effective commentary on the characters’ journeys, highlighting how much they’ve changed by keeping their backdrop the same. It’s also a way for The Good Place to silo its massively expanded mission into a more contained, legible vessel. The big and the small are no longer at odds in the show’s grand design—instead, in this recalibrated equilibrium, the small is once again a gateway into the big.

The Good Place has merged its early and late periods, wedding familiar beats to an expanded context. Over the four episodes screened for critics in advance, the final season of The Good Place has plenty of the wacky grace notes enabled by the anything-is-possible set-up and furnished by an accomplished writers’ room that includes Megan Amram and Morgan Sackett. Eleanor introduces her charges to their fellow deceased by hosting a mock talk show, erecting a giant, Tonight Show–esque set in the middle of a quaint town square. Attempting to induce the guilt trip that inspired her own moral awakening, Eleanor and Michael trigger a meltdown like the one that ended the pilot, but with Princeton blazers in lieu of flying shrimp. The callback is a staple of well-liked comedies easing into their home stretch, but The Good Place puts its own spin on the convention.

Mostly, though, the final season’s nostalgia takes root in the fictional people we’ve come to know like real ones, forming new connections and deepening the ones they’ve already made. The sitcom has never needed weighty ideas or epic overtones; simply showing likable people spending time with one another was always enough. The Good Place has added compelling ideas about fairness, interpersonal obligation, and bureaucratic torturers named Shawn to its basic scaffolding. But as a return to basics goes to show, it hasn’t forgotten its foundation, either.