For the past three years, The Good Place has been the best place on network television. The series has never raked in viewers or gained a huge cult following like creator Mike Schur’s other shows (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), but like its central gang of reformed losers who dubbed themselves “Team Cockroach” for their ability to survive anything, the show has evolved more brilliantly and more often than one would’ve ever expected. The Good Place’s afterlife-surfing cast of characters talk a lot about the stupid but miraculous moments that bring us together, and it’s miraculous in its own right that we got four seasons of this daring, special story.
The Kristen Bell-led NBC series operates on a sky-high concept and burns through major ideas and comedic bits at speeds too fast for our simple human brains to comprehend, so it makes sense that the story would eventually run out of road. The third season saw a more grounded version of the show as the core characters — formerly selfish Eleanor (Bell), indecisive Chidi (William Jackson Harper), uber-bougie Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and erstwhile Florida Man Jason (Manny Jacinto) — were brought back to earth for a redo of sorts, but the hard reboots grew wearying in a world that felt small compared to earlier seasons’ adventures. Each chapter has been clever and entertaining, but the third season made it clear that a natural narrative endpoint would naturally arrive sooner rather than later.
In the fourth and final season, the group is back in “The Good Place,” although it’s not really heaven so much as a mental projection created by peppy near-deity Janet (D’arcy Carden). Reformed demon Michael (Ted Danson) and baddie demon Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson) are both pulling the strings for one last barely controlled experiment, the results of which could lead to a complete rethinking of the now obviously rigged afterlife system.
This is a series that shifted past its original premise within its first few episodes and is now so many Rubix Cube-like turns into its plot machinations that each layer of detailed jokes and callbacks feels like a special prize for having made it through this wild interdimensional ride. The characters have convincingly changed, too. Eleanor is pretending to be the new Michael, neighborhood ambassador to a group of unwitting afterlife study participants including a brain-wiped Chidi, whose love she gave up to help humankind. Tahani still name-drops like nobody’s business — keep an ear out for a particularly great one-off about a child star in a Twitter feud — but she’s largely resolved her insecurities. Chidi decided to give up control to let himself be reset for the experiment, a huge leap for a moral philosophy professor who’s paralyzed by choice. And Jason, well, he’s still Jason.
As the show comes to a head, its surprisingly meaty central message becomes clearer. It all comes back to Chidi’s “What We Owe Each Other” speech from the end of Season 2. When people decide to support one another, they act better to others and feel better themselves. Good people do good. It’s actually pretty cool to see a short-form comedy series talking about solipsism, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and the like. And — pause for Chidi to cheer — throughout its run, The Good Place has actually made thinking about moral philosophy something close to, well, fun.
Although the gang technically died in 2016, the past two seasons have found bold ways to incorporate political events, from the Good Place investigation into corruption that will likely take thousands of years to Team Cockroach’s discovery that it’s virtually impossible to get into “The Good Place” under current global capitalism, thanks to the ethical interconnectedness of all beings. The new season takes that commentary to another level with the character Brent (Ben Koldyke), an experiment participant who “The Bad Place” folks chose specifically to drive Eleanor up a wall. An amalgam of every rich white guy we’ve seen in the news in the past three years, Brent is entitled, insensitive, and oblivious. He makes nonsensical Captain Marvel digs and addresses comments to Michael when Eleanor is right in front of him. This series has always been great at dreaming up the most inane but realistic behaviors to attribute to its Bad Placers — see the Hell’s conference room-set minisode series, “The Selection,” for more — and Brent is the natural extension of this. For all its zany high-concept hijinks, The Good Place isn’t afraid to fire some shots at our messy planet circa 2019.
The four episodes available for review so far this season all maintain the show’s classic high-wire act of arch, Very Online comedy, oddball fantasy elements, and breakneck turns of fate. The premiere alone features a violent flying old woman, Chidi’s ex Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) bellowing “Semi-Charmed Life,” Janet’s ex-slash-creation Derek (Jason Mantzoukas) eating an onion out of a martini glass, The Judge (Maya Rudolph) dishing about her Deadwood binge-watch, and a magical truth-telling baby elephant letting us know that “Shirley Temple killed JFK!”
At times in Season 3, the show felt like it was just trying to get us from point A to point B, but there’s no such sense here. Each of the main actors is firing on all cylinders, and all of them are game for the kinds of goofy bits that you can already imagine in the gag reel. In a rarity for ensemble casts, every main actor gets the chance to do something hilarious, and while there are breakouts, no one outshines anyone else.
Within the confines of the “Good Place” neighborhood, the show feels a little like Season 1 again in the best way, only this time our freshly heroic squad is in on the master plan and ready(-ish) for action. And in the pauses between jokes, the stakes on The Good Place feel higher now. It’s not just the core four whose fates hang in the balance anymore — they’re working to help the whole broken world. As the clock winds down on this series, every moment feels precious, for Team Cockroach as well as for us, the people who believed in this little series that could.