The Good Place is back for its fourth and final season. A review of the season premiere, “A Girl From Arizona, Part One,” coming up just as soon as I get my daily dose of Timothy Olyphant…
The previous two years of The Good Place opened with an hour-long premiere. For a show with this much story, particularly at the transition of one season into the next, this makes sense. Michael‘s first reboot at the start of Season Two, and the Soul Squad’s gradual assembly back in the real world to kick off Season Three, needed a lot of room to properly set up and play out. At the same time, the heavy expository burden placed on both those hours prevents them from being among the best examples of their respective seasons.
As the title, “A Girl From Arizona, Part One” suggests, Season Four seemed meant to start off in the same way, only for its premiere to be split into two half-hour episodes at some point. The good news is that we’ll get to spend a bit longer with this final season; doubling up the premieres meant that the second and third seasons both felt like they were ending a week earlier than they should. But it also means that we spend the first couple of weeks in throat-clearing mode, rather than getting that out of the way in a single night.
Among the story items on the agenda this week: Eleanor struggling to be the new neighborhood’s leader as things go awry and she deals with the pain of Chidi not remembering her; meeting new neighbors Linda and Brent, and getting a better sense of how Shaun is messing with our beloved dum-dums; and Jason battling Derek over Derek’s continued pursuit of “my mommy girlfriend” Janet. That’s a lot to cover, even in an episode where much of the action will spill over into next week. Still, these not-quite-30 minutes manage to give everyone a moment to shine. (Even Tahani, who doesn’t have a subplot of her own, is not only the first to see through Linda, but gets many of the night’s best lines, like comparing Linda to the time “I split a Xanax with Peter Sarsgard.”)
Linda turns out to be a disguise worn by Chris, the shirtless hot guy who tried and failed to pose as Eleanor’s soul mate in the first of the reboots. But her affectless Norwegian demeanor makes her a good comic foil for the others until Chris gives himself up too easily, much to the chagrin of both Shaun and the Judge. And Brent’s defiant masculine mediocrity — “Here we are with all the terms we gotta learn,” he whines upon learning he can’t call Janet a secretary. “Vice President of Helping! Captain Marvel!” — makes him seem like exactly the kind of guy Shaun would want to hang out with, and thus the kind of guy Eleanor would despise. (It’s also a character type Ben Koldyke’s played well many times before, including in the cross-dressing sitcom Work It!, an inner-circle TV Hall of Shamer.)
Derek’s amusingly immature rivalry with Jason is a reminder that Good Place has made by far the best use of Jason Mantzoukas of any of the Mike Schur shows. (Calibrated just right, as he is here, there are few humans I find funnier. Have him be crazy in the wrong context, like on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and it wears thin fast.) But it’s most useful for illustrating just how much stress the new experiment is putting on Janet. She made all of this herself, and the amount of focus required to keep the neighborhood from collapsing in on itself adds another layer of comic tension to any scene with Janet, and to the season as a whole. It’s a smart idea.
I’m agnostic on Eleanor and Chidi as a couple, feeling that sometimes it works beautifully, while at others it seems like the show skipped too many steps and treated their true love as an inevitable endgame. With Chidi’s memory erased for the time being, we don’t have to worry about their romantic chemistry. But a lot of what’s driving the story is how much it hurts Eleanor to be around him when he has no idea who she is or how they feel about each other — especially when Simone is also a part of this. Simone the atheist neuroscientist’s belief that this is all a hallucination produced by her comatose mind is only one of many fires Eleanor has to put out, so the premiere doesn’t have to lean too hard on our heroine’s reluctance to put Chidi together with his ex-girlfriend. (Also: Kirby Howell-Baptiste was mostly playing straight woman to the Soul Squad last season, so it’s good to see she can play just as crazy as the original cast members when the occasion calls for it.)
The episode ends on a muted note, with Bad Janet taking Chris away on the train and Eleanor trying to defuse Michael’s latest lame taunt of Shaun. It’s not really a cliffhanger, which is perhaps the most obvious sign that this episode and the next one were made to air together. (And that’s how people will eventually consume them in their streaming afterlife.) Still, it’s a promising start to the latest phase of this unpredictable gem, even as I’m eager to be done with set-up and dive into whatever strange ideas Schur and company have for us farther down the line.
Some other thoughts:
* In case you missed it, I spent a few days on the set this summer, which led to this feature about what’s made the show so great and why everyone will miss it, a deleted scenes piece with fun anecdotes (including Ted Danson spoiling the big Season One twist to impress John Krasinski), and a long conversation with Kristen Bell.
* Another highlight of Jason vs. Derek, and of the fact that the new neighborhood is in the Medium Place, is how much more we’re getting of Mindy St. Claire, who’s not happy at having all these interlopers in her home, but is very happy to see Jason hit the murder button for her annoying ex-lover Derek. Because the show has used her sparingly to this point, Mindy has among the highest comic batting averages of any character. Early returns suggest she can produce well in a larger sample size.
* Of course the Bad Place’s theme song is the 1-877-KARS-4-KIDS jingle. And I will never forgive the show for reminding me that this song exists. But the Bad Place’s slogan being, “Dead eyes, eat hearts, can’t lose” — parodying the most famous line from Friday Night Lights — mostly makes up for that.
* When Eleanor had to abruptly pretend to be the architect in last season’s finale, I suggested that, were it not for Bell and Danson’s extreme height difference, I might have expected to see them swap outfits before she met with the first new arrival. Here, she’s finally in a suit, but a tailored, feminine one, and no bow tie. (Which feels right from an outside-the-story perspective: One of the things Danson and costume designer Kirston Mann told me was that Danson didn’t feel he truly “got” Michael until she handed him a bow tie at his first fitting. It’s his special accessory, not Eleanor’s.)
* Finally, my wife and daughter recently started the series, and one thing I was reminded of while joining them for early episodes is that Chidi briefly had his own apartment elsewhere in the neighborhood. It’s an odd thing, given that most of the other “soul mates” like Tahani and Jason lived together from the start, and we barely ever saw it before he moved in with Eleanor full-time. Here, though, we get a much better look at the place, which really does seem like Chidi’s dream home: basically nothing but books, with him having the ability to summon them through the air like Thor’s hammer.