Big spoilers for the season finale of “The Good Place” follow. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it on NBC’s website and come back. I can wait.
Serialization in sitcoms is a rare thing. Most, while they do have continuous arcs, focus on a singular story each week. Still, many sitcoms are at their best when they allow stories to gain momentum over time. This is especially prevalent in sitcoms created by Michael Schur, creator of “Brooklyn Nine Nine” and “Parks and Rec.” The former started its fall hot streak with a brilliant three-parter that benefitted from the extra time and the latter thrived in the narrative arc (with my favorite example being Leslie running for city council). In each case, the alternative strucute paid off as it built over the course of several episodes. However, no network sitcom this year has been as serialized as NBC’s “The Good Place.” The comedy wrapped up its first season with a finale that built off the work that came before it to create an ending that blew open possibilities for season two in an incredibly exciting way.
As “The Good Place” winded through its first season, it constructed a story that was as twisty as it was intriguing. It burned through its plot with abandon. Moments that would normally come at the end of the season were happening halfway through. It started off with a problem: Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell, “Veronica Mars”) ended up in the “Good Place” (the show’s non-denominational heaven) even though she acted horribly to the people in her life on Earth (like how she left her friend’s dog she was supposed to feed to go to a Rihanna concert). She meets her “soulmate,” Chidi (William Jackson Harper, “The Electric Company”) who quickly became one of TV’s best straight men, her proudly philanthropic neighbor Tahani (Jameela Jamil, “T4”) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto, “The Romeo Section”), a Floridian DJ who is mistaken for a Buddhist monk. As she reveals herself and her past life to the “neighborhood,” the show continued to move forward with compelling plot points at every turn.
With its narrative momentum, “The Good Place” ’s finale produced a twist that completely changed the fabric of the show. While the characters struggle with the decision of who to send to the torturous “Bad Place,” Eleanor realizes that they have been in the “Bad Place” all along, in a world perfectly built such that the core cast tortures each other. It’s the kind of twist that makes me rethink the show I’ve been watching for an entire season, as it’s both shocking and sensible. Of course these people were placed together to torture each other. Ted Danson’s (“Cheers”) ridiculous smile as he’s revealed to be an evil architect is about as laugh-inducing as comedy can get. The twist sets up a second season where the core cast’s memory is wiped and they are split apart, with Eleanor leaving herself a note to “find Chidi.” A season where the core cast will have to navigate their hell and find each other sounds like something “The Good Place” will do well.
On top of its compelling story, “The Good Place” takes on the question of what it means to be a “good” person, as Eleanor tries to improve herself in an effort to stay in the Good Place. Knowing she’s out-of-place, Eleanor spends the season trying to become a better person. Chidi (a former philosophy professor) teaches her ethics and, later in the season, Eleanor starts to think about what will be best for those around her, not just herself. As Eleanor’s journey goes on, the show subtlety deals with what’s really a difficult question: Can you improve yourself? In the finale, it seems to answer “yes,” with the other characters willing to support her in a “trial” on whether she could stay in the Good Place.
Not only is the show’s use of serialization fascinating, it’s also a fun show to watch. Following in the footsteps of “Parks” and “Brooklyn,” there’s a certain light-hearted nature to everything that happens. The characters clearly care about one another, and it shows in their interactions, which the series mines for humor so well. The relationship between Jason and the neighborhood’s robot assistant, Janet (D’Arcy Carden, “Broad City”), put two characters together to great results. There were so many great jokes in the finale about the two of them trying to have sex that wouldn’t have worked if we didn’t get to know these characters throughout the season.
The character work and light tone makes “The Good Place” special. Add in the captivating twists along with strong performances, and NBC has one of the best comedies on television. However, the network hasn’t renewed the show for a second season yet. The ratings are not bad by any stretch, but they’re not good enough that a pickup is guaranteed. Still, the finale set up a fascinating season two that I really hope NBC gives us.