These days, my sister gives TV shows an uncompromisingly short leash: If she’s not sold within an episode or two, it’s on to the next thing. It’s hard to argue with the process, especially when there’s more scripted television—and now in 2020, more streaming services—than ever before. (Also, keeping track of all these shows is part of my job, not hers.) Still, her approach has yielded some unfortunate casualties; my Number One Boy Succession chief among them. The Good Place, the NBC sitcom airing its series finale Thursday night, has been another—the parade of puns and flying shrimp was, for her, an entertaining diversion, but not something worth sticking with in the long term. I don’t relay this to put my sister on public blast, but because it’s easy to see where she was coming from. The hallmark of a sitcom, after all, is familiarity—with the characters and, more often than not, with the setting.
But the brilliance of The Good Place’s first season is that it operated less like a sitcom, and more like a mystery-box series—a show that judiciously withholds a key piece of information to later wield it against the audience. The fact that we were inclined to look at the show like a traditional sitcom made the Season 1 finale’s now-infamous twist all the more rewarding:
Eleanor’s realization that she, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani were in the Bad Place throughout the first season—and “Good Place architect”/actual demon Michael’s sinister cackle when she figures it out—caught a ton of viewers off guard, and threw The Good Place off its axis. It was still a show concerned with moral philosophy and how someone can become a better person, but the twist exponentially elevated its stakes. These characters were going to have pore through the lessons of T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other not in pun-loving heaven, but in literal hell. (It is a downright dystopian twist that the season finale aired the night before Donald Trump’s inauguration.)
When a series successfully executes a big twist like this, there’s typically an unspoken rule between the showrunner and the audience that the next twist will need to be exceptionally deceptive—viewers are going to have their proverbial antennas raised.
The results for other mystery-box shows have been mixed. Deploying twists mostly worked to Mr. Robot’s benefit, all the way through its excellent series finale, but creator Sam Esmail made a grave miscalculation in the second season: He had a misdirect prepared, but perceptive viewers figured out Elliot Alderson was actually in prison several weeks before it was revealed on the show. This was, sadly, around the time Mr. Robot had a precipitous drop in viewership.
Westworld is another show that relies on keeping its audience guessing, but it often seems to mistake complexity for profundity, pulling the plug on any emotional investment with the characters in favor of throwing in multiple timelines and twists. (It’s no surprise most Westworld coverage is led by questions about what the hell is happening.) And perhaps most notoriously—Good Place creator Michael Schur cited the show as a leading influence for his own—Lost’s series finale didn’t solve all the show’s lingering mysteries, and angered some corners of the show’s fan base so much that creator Damon Lindelof had to quit Twitter.
That’s how most mystery-box shows operate: on the razor-thin edge between satisfying the audience and making it sharpen its digital pitchforks. (Even if, in the case of Lost, there was some artistic merit in letting the mystery be.) But despite unleashing one of the most impressive plot twists in recent memory, The Good Place has continued to operate in service of its philosophical base and characters rather than try to pull the rug out from under us for a second time, and possibly fail.
What’s driven The Good Place hasn’t been any ill-fated attempt to outsmart its audience, but the growth of its characters in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. After being placed in an experiment designed to have them torture one another, Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani have instead charted a path toward self-improvement through ethics lessons, owning up to their flaws, and seeing the fundamental decency in just about anything. Even Michael, who went from gleefully torturing his human subjects to becoming their biggest ally, has become a better, uh, demon—his journey feels like a natural extension of the show’s “finding the good in everyone” storytelling.
Not to repeatedly dunk on Westworld, but that show set up a similar path to enlightenment—robots living in their own eternal hell loop before rebelling against their demonic human overlords—but failed to maintain emotional investment; too many characters were left intentionally inscrutable. (Some humans are revealed as robots, all Anthony Hopkins did was creepily quote Shakespeare, etc.) The Good Place has never lost sight of what matters—its characters—and never sidelined that in favor of more disorienting plot machinations. All told, The Good Place is telling an engaging story on its own terms, and enjoying the series for the past three seasons hasn’t required fans to scour Reddit for the latest theories.
This doesn’t mean The Good Place hasn’t had any surprises since the end of Season 1—between frequent memory wipes, “neighborhood” reboots, and the introduction of Maya Rudolph’s all-powerful and burrito-loving Judge (basically God with a penchant for binge-watching prestige TV), The Good Place has managed to keep its audience on its toes. That was definitely true of the show’s penultimate episode, when the real Good Place was revealed to be a flawed institution with zombie-like inhabitants OD’ing on eternal bliss and orgasms. (A marked improvement from the Bad Place’s legendary butthole spiders, but not exactly paradise.) And, of course, it’s still possible the series finale has one last breaking ball in its arsenal, even after our protagonists appeared to have perfected the afterlife.
Schur’s series was already a peculiar addition to the mystery-box canon, where most entries tend to be dramas with a science-fiction or supernatural bent: the Losts, Twin Peakses, The Leftoverses, The OAs, and Westworlds of the world. But The Good Place, with its conceptually daring interpretation of heaven, paved the way for a trippy subgenre of mystery-box TV comedies—like Forever and Russian Doll—examining what happens when we die, the enduring mysteries of the afterlife, and how we can better ourselves from beyond the grave. While full of ambiguity and intrigue, these afterlife-based comedies aren’t beholden to those mysteries, either. It’s what these shows share with the best of the genre (Twin Peaks, The Leftovers): The mystery draws you in, but you stay because you care about what will happen next. Just because a series starts with the trappings of a mystery box doesn’t mean it has to end that way.
It’s why any questions I have heading into The Good Place finale—aside from “Will Jason’s hero, Blake Bortles, show up?”—have less to do with the potential revelation of hidden, lingering details of the show’s afterlife than the fate of Eleanor and Chidi’s relationship, or Michael’s contentment in his role as the new leader of heaven. The Good Place might be a good example of a contemporary mystery-box show with an all-time twist, but those conventions aren’t what made it great. Schur’s series excels because we’ve remained emotionally invested in the characters and their self-improvement—even as they went through literal hell and back.