Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for January 15 through 21 is “Michael’s Gambit,” the first season finale of NBC’s The Good Place.
(Note: Welcome to The Good Place [review]! Everything is fine. But please beware: this post includes spoilers, and lots of ‘em.)
The Good Place has surprised viewers from the second it premiered — and its season finale was a forceful reminder that there’s no point setting normal expectations for this show, because it will continually blow them out of the water.
Initially, the NBC sitcom billed itself as a quirky comedy about Eleanor (Kristen Bell), a dirtbag impostor who accidentally ends up in heaven (aka “The Good Place”) and needs to feign goodness in order to stay out of hell (aka “The Bad Place”).
But the finale changes everything. We have not been watching a show about Eleanor becoming a better person with the help of concerned ethicist Chidi (William Jackson Harper). We haven’t even been watching a show about her desperate attempts to hide her true identity from befuddled Good Place architect Michael (Ted Danson) or her holier-than-thou neighbor Tahani (Jameela Jamil), the better to stay in The Good Place.
In fact: we haven't been watching a show about The Good Place at all.
The finale’s crucial moment, one that takes the show from very good to straight-up great, comes when Eleanor realizes that she can’t escape The Bad Place — because she’s already there. Even if her Technicolor neighborhood doesn’t look like the hell of the Bible or Dante, Michael threw together a combination of clashing personalities to make sure they would all keep each other in a hell of their own making.
Blowing up the show’s entire premise in its season finale is, to say the least, a gutsy move. It’s also one that could have easily backfired had The Good Place been at all clumsy along the way.
Instead, The Good Place landed a tricky dismount with ease and a confident grin. This show, unlike Eleanor, knew exactly what it was doing all along.
This twist worked because its roots are in careful character development
When Eleanor realized that she was in The Bad Place ... Reader, my jaw dropped.
Or, to borrow Eleanor’s (Good Place censored) words: holy motherforking shirtballs.
Though momentarily distracted by Danson’s perfect transition from harmless do-gooder to evil mastermind all in one expert curl of a demonic smile — a single, perfect moment that should drown this man in awards — it didn’t take long for the sheer ambition of the show’s gambit to hit me.
Throughout this first season — 13 episodes in all — creator Mike Schur laid out a calculated plan, each episode working toward making the final twist land. He and his writers made each character specific and specifically motivated, so that when Eleanor realizes that she and the others were sent to this section of The Bad Place to torture each other, you immediately understand why.
Eleanor hates people thinking they’re better than her, so of course a heaven full of self-righteous do-gooders would be a nightmare. Chidi spent his life on Earth trying not to tie himself up in ethical knots, making the task of hiding Eleanor’s secret a constant torture.
Tahani couldn’t throw a single successful party like all the charity fundraisers she sponsored while alive, nor did she get the soulmate she was promised in heaven. Her supposed eternal partner turned out to be Jason, a dense Floridian DJ who spent all his time in The Good Place living out his least favorite activity of hiding who he really was.
The four unraveled Michael’s scheme more quickly than he had anticipated. He even ends the season by wiping their memories so he can start his experiment with a few new alterations. (This do-over is also a sneakily brilliant way to set up another season of the show, especially since Eleanor manages to hide a written clue to nudge herself in the right direction before her amnesia sets in.)
Still: Michael’s basic thesis was spot on. Even when the four came together, their personalities still grated enough that they kept torturing the hell out of each other. But since this was never literal torture or anything, Michael’s scheme was never so obvious that the show tipped its hand.
Most importantly — and unusually for TV today — The Good Place managed to keep almost every revealing detail about its story a secret until the moment it wanted us to know.
The Good Place’s first season is a (very fun) testament to the power of keeping things a mystery
When Schur and the cast presented The Good Place at the Television Critics Association press tour last summer, it was one of the more uniquely frustrating panels I’d ever experienced.
Don’t get me wrong; the panelists were all very charming and funny, clearly excited about their show, and eager for us to see it. But whenever someone asked a specific question about plot, or what exactly the show was supposed to be, Schur deflected with a smile and a polite, “I won’t say.”
But we should have known what we were in for when he admitted that his closest model for The Good Place was Lost.
In that context, The Good Place’s ongoing story and constant cliffhangers make perfect sense. But it was still strange to watch a network sitcom drop earth-shattering twists on its characters every week, because that sort of thing simply doesn’t happen.
A flashback in the finale to Michael pitching his experiment to his skeptical co-workers in
hell The Bad Place — “it can work! we could just send them all to the hot spike pits with the lava and bees and lightning that tears off their flesh, but why not try something new!” —could very serve as a flashback to Schur pitching The Good Place to networks wary of a show they couldn’t truly advertise.
And now that the finale has turned the entire series upside down, looking back is almost as exciting as looking forward. Watching the first season knowing that we’re actually watching a sick Bad Place experiment is like watching Sixth Sense in light of its famous twist. Lines like Eleanor wondering in the very first episode if her parents are in The Bad Place “being used to torture each other” take on new significance in the best way. The Good Place laid clues and winking jokes that hinted at its big twist everywhere, just waiting to be discovered upon a re-watch.
Rarely does a show — let alone a network sitcom — get to build an elaborate mystery before pulling the rug out from underneath its viewers. More rarely still does a show pull that move off in a way that doesn’t just make sense, but throws everything about its construction into a new, more impressive light.
But The Good Place, as it proved all season long, relishes finding new ways of twisting comedy expectations so far beyond their usual limits that it becomes impossible to guess where the show might be going next. It’s thrilled to be what we least expect — and it will have some big shoes to fill going into season two, whatever that turns out to be.
Season one of The Good Place is currently available to stream on Hulu.