Another The Good Place season has come to an end. A review of the finale, “Pandemonium,” coming up just as soon as I set up Drake and Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a secret couple …
Even a show like The Good Place that takes such pleasure in surprising and confounding us isn’t immune to formula. We’ve now wrapped three seasons of the show, and each has involved a drastic resetting of the status quo. Season One concluded with Eleanor figuring out that the neighborhood was in the Bad Place, and Michael blanking everyone’s memories to start over from scratch. Season Two concluded with Michael and the Judge arranging to send our four dum-dums back to their lives on earth to give them a chance to prove their moral growth was real. Now Season Three ends with a combination of elements from the previous finales, and these three years as a whole: There’s a new neighborhood, a new chance to prove that the point system is flawed and unfair, and several characters (notably Chidi and new arrival Simone) have had their memories wiped to prevent this new experiment from failing before it starts.
This could feel like the series retreating to safe ground after its most experimental — and, not coincidentally, uneven (but still pretty great) — season to date. It doesn’t, though. Yes, we again get to have fun spotting weird stores and restaurants around the neighborhood (one of them serves “foot lager”), but there are three crucial changes:
1) There are new humans in the neighborhood this time, and they’ll have to be with us for however long this phase of the story lasts;
2) The power and knowledge dynamics are different: Eleanor has to pretend to be the architect after Michael’s meltdown at the end of the previous episode, while Chidi (arguably the most important figure in the whole experiment) no longer knows who she, Tahani or Jason are; and
3) It’s no longer a matter of the fate of these four goofballs, but of the entire human race for all of eternity.
There’s also a smaller but important fourth distinction: where the previous seasons saved the big surprises for the finales (and the very end of the finale in Season One), most of this year’s big developments were established in the penultimate episode. Shawn‘s particular method of playing dirty — picking new neighbors who were already connected to our heroes on earth and can cause them emotional torment in the afterlife — is a surprise, but not a jaw-dropper in the manner of Eleanor declaring, “This is the Bad Place!” and Michael laughing evilly. And that’s a good thing, because if The Good Place was purely dependent on shock value, it would have burned itself out creatively a long time ago. When everything is meant to be surprising, eventually nothing is. And there are enough moving parts in this new status quo to last a while, it seems. (Which, knowing how this series rolls, means that it could all change again before the halfway point of the Season Four premiere.)
This is a promising start to whatever this phase winds up being. Kirby Howell-Baptiste barely gets to do anything in the finale, but it’s such a pleasure to have Simone back after she was such a bright spot of the season’s Australian period. Eleanor scrambling to play architect makes good use of her well-established gift for grifting, and the increasingly confident Janet proves just as valuable a confidante and closer to Eleanor as she was to Michael. (As Eleanor realizes a few minutes into the episode, Janet at this point should just be the one acting like she’s in charge, but that would solve way too many narrative problems too easily. Better to have everybody be aware, even though her role is more limited.) It’s hard to say yet whether Tahani‘s gossip blog tormenter John will turn out to be more nuanced than he is here, but at minimum he’s a character type the show hasn’t had before, and it’s easy to imagine him having amusing encounters with Chidi, Jason and the others.
The only slightly concerning thing about “Pandemonium” is how much of it ultimately leans on Eleanor and Chidi’s romance, and the latest obstacle to it created by Simone’s arrival and the need to erase Chidi’s memory. It’s been something of a rollercoaster following that relationship over the bulk of three seasons. Some weeks, the writing and the chemistry between Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper is so sharp that of course I want these adorable kids to find love at the end of the world (or wherever exactly Mindy’s backyard is). At others, the problems of these two don’t seem to amount to a hill of beans in this crazy afterlife, and it feels like the show is losing the plot by leaning so heavily on them as a couple. The finale felt like one of the latter situations. Harper and Bell did strong work, particularly as Michael showed them a montage of their many romances through many reboots, and it’s because the stakes are now so high that Chidi’s sacrifice seems so noble. But the bonds between these six people (or, six people, one demon and whatever exactly we’re calling Janet this week) as a whole have always tended to be more compelling than any particular subgroup. If you’re on The Good ‘Ship Cheleanor, then perhaps this is exactly what you wanted and needed from the finale. (That, or you’re cursing the fates/Schur for again splitting them up). As more of an agnostic about this particular element of the afterlife, it felt like a distraction from all the other promising developments.
On the whole, though, this was a strong end to the season, and a promising new direction for Season Four. And there are still two additional humans to meet when we return, one of whom I’m guessing will be Donkey Doug. Should be fun.
Some other thoughts:
* As has now become his tradition with this show, Mike Schur is going into radio silence for a while. When he emerges, we’ll talk about what went down here and throughout Season Three.
* Ted Danson and Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Andre Braugher aren’t exactly the same type of performer, but it’s fun to see how both shows strategically make their older authority figure characters do or say things that are too young for them. Last week, it was Michael trying to distract the Judge by flossing; here, as he ponders the impending catastrophe he’s created for himself (along with the fatness of his neck), he warns Eleanor that this will be the failure to end all failures: “It’ll be… an epic fail!” As with Captain Holt saying things like “Yas queen,” it’s funny precisely because it’s coming from a relatively dignified and imperious figure.
* If it weren’t for the 13-inch height disparity between Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, seeing D’Arcy Carden dressed as the four humans in “Janet(s)” would have primed me to expect Architect Eleanor to greet John in the waiting room while wearing Michael’s suit and bow tie.
* Eleanor tells Janet that, “For a robot, you make a really good girl friend,” to which Janet replies, “I’m one out of three of those things.” We know she’s neither a robot nor a girl, so friend it is!
* John recalls Tahani dying mysteriously in Canada, which fits the new timeline where Michael spared Team Cockroach from their original deaths. But wouldn’t that mean he would recognize Eleanor and the others, since they died alongside Tahani? They weren’t celebrities, but they died mysteriously right alongside her, in a way that I’m sure gossip sites like John’s would have obsessed over for weeks (or until the next Kardashian baby, at least). For that matter, won’t it be a problem if Chidi’s last memory is of the air conditioner falling on him while John recalls an entirely different death on a different continent?
What did everybody else think, of both the finale and Season Three as a whole?
Previously: Cuts Like a Time-Knife