On ‘The Good Place’ Twist and a Strong Finish to a Fine First Season

On 'The Good Place' Twist and
Courtesy NBC

Don’t read on unless you’ve seen “Michael’s Gambit,” the Season One finale of “The Good Place.”

Who knew we were going to get two versions of “Westworld” — one comedic, the other dramatic — in the past five months? Peak TV, you secretive minx, you.

The parallels between “The Good Place” and the HBO show were strong even before the arrival of the episode that ended the season. The train that serviced Eleanor and Chidi’s town was an old-timey engine that could have had a walk-on (rail-on?) role in “Westworld,” and in Thursday’s other episode, “Mindy St. Claire,” the train chugged through a dusty desert only to pull up at a station framed by wide open spaces. Whenever Eleanor was sitting on those wooden benches inside the train, I half-expected Teddy to amble up to her and say “Howdy, ma’am.” (And speaking of HBO Westerns, true TV nerds will remember that Kristen Bell had a guest role on “Deadwood,” another show about frontier folk trying to make their way in a morally confusing world.)

Of course, the “Westworld” parallels don’t stretch as far as those railroad tracks. There are no brothels in the town Michael made (or are there?), and only one character on “The Good Place” is a robot. As far as we know. Perhaps the twist of season two is that everyone is a robot! Or that Jason can do the robot. One of those two things has to be true.

This is the point at which Chidi would grow impatient and tell me to get to the point, so I will.

A lot of shows have tried to pull off the Big Twist, especially in recent years, when it seems like every other hourlong drama was competing to set social media aflame with a big OMG moment. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with swinging for the fences, and nothing’s more fun than experiencing a jaw-dropping moment. The problem is — as shows as varied as “Dexter” and “Mr. Robot” have found — the audience sometimes figures out the twist way ahead of the reveal, which can make for a frustrating disconnect as the viewers wait for a show to unveil a development they’re already well aware of, or at least pretty sure of. 

“Westworld” had this problem too; it was designed, at least in part, to be scrutinized for clues, and much of its narrative was consciously put together like a puzzle. Where the HBO show went wrong — and again, it’s not the first show to fall down its own rabbit hole while frantically adding more rabbits — is that its characters were often too opaque to be moving or compelling. A lot of the show’s character development was hamstrung by the overly convoluted plot, and thus it was harder for the show’s relationships, let alone its emotional and moral themes, to resonate in memorable ways.

As is the case on “Westworld,” the powers that be on “The Good Place” can apparently reset its residents’ memories with the flick of a switch, but the NBC show’s biggest twist landed with a great deal more force than many things that occurred on the HBO drama for a couple of reasons: The “Good Place” shift wasn’t necessarily easy to figure out, and even if you’d guessed it, it didn’t really matter, because the show was a whole lot of fun regardless of what was going on in the main plot. (That said, it was pleasing that the progression of the show’s debut season was logical, streamlined, and clever, which is more than you could say about a lot of more ambitious dramas with much bigger budgets.)

It turns out that the show “The Good Place” was emulating all along was “Lost,” because, duh, everyone was in Purgatory all along (haha, that was a joke for all the veterans of the Great “Lost” Wars of the mid-aughts). There were explicit callouts (especially the line “We have to go back”), but like the ABC show, the NBC comedy explores ideas about redemption, regret and change.

What mattered this season was not what the big twist was or how well the show pulled it off; much more central to the show’s mission was Eleanor’s realization that she had been a bad person before, and could feel more consequential by connecting to and caring about others. The show was, and will probably continue to be, about her earnest and sometimes sloppy forays into becoming a better woman. Other characters, even ones that were very different from her, amplified these ideas; the show revolves around the efforts of various characters to acquire self-knowledge and evolve into someone better than the person they had been before. (Except Jason, who is delightfully clueless about his general awfulness, but his sincerity and sweetness save him from being one of those Bad Place jackasses. But let’s face facts: Janet evolved more than he did.)

Eleanor’s moral redemption was the spine of the season, and only Kristen Bell could have made the character’s selfishness amusing and her moral awakening compelling. But perhaps the real endgame is the evolution of Michael, who seems pretty committed to awfulness now. But he’s played by Ted Danson, so that means he’ll never seem completely evil to me, and even when he’s mean, I’ll always think he can and will become someone better. In the casting, writing and performance are the seeds of potential change, and of course, along the way, Danson will continue to offer perfect timing and delicious line readings. 

So yes, the characters (aside from Mindy) weren’t quite in Purgatory, they were in the Bad Place, and if I may, I had at least some moderate theories along those lines. My guess for the season finale was that it would reveal that everyone in the town had been mistakenly sorted into the Good Place, and that Michael would have to pay for that mistake, and perhaps Season Two would be about rescuing him from the clutches of the douchecanoes who run the Bad Place.

I was partly right — everyone was in the wrong place, but it was only the core four characters, a.k.a. the recently dead folks who mattered to the show’s narrative.  Not only was everyone else in town not recently dead, they were all afterlife employees conspiring with Michael to mess with those four, which leads me to believe that their employers don’t really mind having an enormous overhead. I mean, that’s a lot of time, energy and employees to run one simulation for four people. But who knows, maybe they’ve got the budget for that. The phrase “richer than God” does come to mind…

In any event, it was devilishly clever to have Michael not be the naive goofball whose plan goes awry, but the jerk who thought up a really juicy and partly effective way to be cruel. Well-played, show. 

Truth be told, it always did bother me that the Good Place was so obsessed with the idea of linking people up with their soulmates: As if that is the be-all and end-all of human existence; as if every person only ever has one. But the soulmate routine was yet another piece of propaganda designed to make the core four feel bad about what they were going through. In fact, you could make the argument that the entire show is about how projected fantasies and convincing but hollow narratives ultimately make people feel bad about their mundane and messy lived realities. Is “The Good Place” really a metaphor for how watching a lot of television can make people feel inadequate? Or how absorbing messages about perfection and impossible aspiration via lots of different mediums can be destructive to people’s spirits and souls?

Nah. Let’s just say a big nope to that one. I mean, sure, the analogy is there, and there’s no doubt the show is trying to say something about how we get hung up on ideas of perfection and perception that usually cause us nothing but grief. But all things considered, “The Good Place” is so cheerful about people’s potential to be awesome to each other, even in the worst circumstances, that I’ve decided that the darker reading isn’t necessarily the dominant one.

This last batch of episodes were amusing and wickedly smart, and that’s not a combination one comes across too often. “The Good Place,” as I noted in my original review, was very set-up heavy in the first half of its season, but by the last third of the season, it had built up a winning and energetic momentum. It was as if the show had found a higher gear and steered into the farce and zaniness of it all, while also continuing to deepen the relationships and examine ethnics — sorry — ethics with lively curiosity. Even if certain elements, like, say, Chidi’s indecisiveness, felt a little bit rushed, by the night of the finale, the show had acquired the kind of unstoppable momentum that carried me past any mild wobbles.

But the last three episodes really didn’t have any wobbles, and the two-part finale was especially crisp and entertaining. And as I write this, it’s hard not to recall that our nation, like these characters, stand poised at a moral crossroads. I don’t know about you, but I feel grateful for a show that is, at its heart, so sincere and earnest while also very focused on its mission to entertain. We need that. 

Yes, the comedy has featured robots gone wild, flying shrimp and semi-good people who love cocaine, but “The Good Place” is ultimately about whether we can live with the suffering of others — suffering that we could prevent, if we had the backbone. Essentially, NBC paid for a 13-episode exploration of the famous philosophical dilemma the Trolley Problem, which is an unlikely development that pleases me to no end.

Entire books have been written about the Trolley Problem (Chidi probably wrote a 1000-page book about it that no one read). But suffice to say, it forces people to think about what they would do to reduce or eliminate suffering, even as those grappling with the problem also struggle with the idea that some suffering will occur, no matter what. How do we apportion misery, what can we do to create connection and community, and what constitutes mercy and redemption? What are the limits of altruism and greed? These questions strike me as particularly relevant on Jan. 19, 2017 — and beyond. 

All things considered, I’m glad that a mainstream network is airing something that combines moral exploration with character-based comedy in such fresh, distinctive and pleasing ways. And I’m calling next season’s big development right now: The robots rise up and take over. 

A few final bullet points:

  • I really loved how Mindy St. Claire’s wardrobe and house were permanently stuck in the ‘80s as well. A lot of pinks and peaches and gold dominated her decidedly average house, and her teal suit with the big shoulder patches… looks like stuff I wore back then. I apologize to the universe and hope I don’t go to hell, or to a place that makes me sit through “Cannonball Run 2.”
  • Flirting with Kid Rock? Et tu, Eleanor?
  • These episodes featured yet more perfection from Marc Evan Jackson, who also regularly pops up on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and is deliciously droll and deadpan every time he turns up on my TV screen. I treasure the way he said “one of whom was a deejay.” (Update: Marc’s name has been corrected here. Apologies for the error.)
  • I’m just going to say it, though the entire ensemble is great and the Jason-Janet romance has been adorably weird, I feel no sparks between or among Chidi, Eleanor or Tahani. I could get behind Eleanor and Tahani getting together, maybe — but for me, the other potential romances sort of came out of nowhere and there’s not a ton of chemistry among those characters, at least as of yet. I’d be fine with all three of them finding other romantic partners next season — or not necessarily having soulmates or afterlife-mates, if they don’t want or need them.
  • Presumably the core four characters are all still in the afterlife designed by Michael, but they’re not living near each other. I look forward to seeing them discover each other again, and I’ll bet four cents that Jason falls for Janet all over again. Awwww!
  • What if Judge Shawn is actually the Smoke Monster? Twist!