A review of this week’s The Good Place, “Help Is Other People,” coming up just as soon as I wear the same watch as Richie Sambora…
Last week, I argued that Season Four had done a bad job of developing and using the four human test subjects, the rebooted Chidi included. Some of you speculated that Brent, Simone, and John are actually red herrings, and that the fate of humanity doesn’t depend on them at all. If so, it’s not an ideal use of resources with so little time left. And either way, the show could have done much better by the newbies (or relative newbies, like Simone) than has happened thus far.
But, with the exception of Season Two, which opened with the frequent reboots and Michael’s conversion to Team Cockroach, The Good Place has always been stronger in the second halves of seasons than in the first. And “Help Is Other People” (the title is a riff on Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous quote that “Hell is other people”) definitively ends the experiment itself, even if we have the aftermath still to deal with. Will Brent and the others carry over into this next phase? We’ll have to see, but at least the experiment ends on a relative high note that plays like a funhouse-mirror remake of the famous end of Season One.
As the experiment enters its final day, Eleanor is an anxious wreck about their inability to get Brent to stop being a selfish man-baby, and her behavior has become erratic enough for Simone to notice. It’s a clever twist, albeit the kind of story that would play much better if Simone had been more prominently featured in the previous six episodes. We still don’t know, for instance, when or why she accepted that the afterlife was real, rather than just pretending to be polite to appease what she thought was a hallucination of Chidi. But during the Australia section of Season Three, she demonstrated both the raw intelligence of Chidi and the street smarts of Eleanor, which makes her the perfect person to see through this slapdash operation, and to ask tough questions about it.
As has been the case throughout the season, though, this big development plays out more through the response of the regular characters than through anything that Simone, John, and Brent do. Eleanor panics even more, Michael uses this as an excuse to bust out his magician alter ego, The Magnificent Dr. Presto, and Chidi melts down when his alleged soul mate Simone doesn’t seem to be into him in that way.
And, as has also been the case throughout the season, Simone and John’s feelings are treated as mattering much less than Brent’s reformation. The imbalance among the newbies has been as much of a problem as the lack of screen time for any of them. Simone was already a very good person, while John had some room for improvement, but not nearly as much as Brent. So the experiment, the season to date, and this episode all hinge on Brent being able to look beyond himself and think of others. When Simone and John bail on the plan to pull Brent out of the pit Michael and Janet open up, it’s not even an afterthought; it’s just an easy excuse to get them out of the way while the gang hopes Brent can turn it around before the clock runs out.
Fortunately, that concluding sequence is wonderful. Jason gets to make a coherent argument, albeit by framing it in football talk, as he posits that running the prevent defense (i.e., doing nothing at all) would prevent the experiment from succeeding. Even better, his assertion that you really can blow up the same thing twice inspires a fantastic callback to the series’ most iconic moment. With very little time left, Michael and Eleanor goad Chidi into saying, as Eleanor once did, that this is the Bad Place — and then they both let out evil laughs, at greater length than Michael did back in the first season finale. Kristen Bell and the other actors have talked a lot about how awestruck they were by Ted Danson’s performance of that laugh (after several takes in a different vein that weren’t working). It’s clear that she relishes the chance to do her own version of it, just as it’s obvious that Danson can dial up a longer take on it and make it seem effortless. It doesn’t redeem the parts of the experiment that haven’t really been effective — again, this joke is all about the people we already know well — but it’s nonetheless a highlight of the season, and the series.
It takes Eleanor and Michael so long to get there, though, and then for Chidi to finally force Brent to think about someone else’s feelings, that Brent’s apology has barely started when time elapses and he and Chidi are frozen in place. Did he say enough before the clock struck midnight for it to matter? Have the point totals for the others grown enough to compensate for Brent? It’s unclear, and also a genuine cliffhanger in a season that’s been oddly light on them so far. We don’t know if the experiment will work for Eleanor, but it mostly hasn’t for The Good Place. Then again, I didn’t love the Earth interlude, and then the second half of Season Three was a joy, so I’m not hugely worried about Schur and company’s ability to land this bird. But I’m definitely glad to be done with this section of it.