I am on the record, repeatedly, as being a huge fan of NBC’s The Good Place. It’s not only my favorite comedy currently airing on TV but one of my favorite TV shows in general. While I felt that the middle of season three was a bit of a misstep, the show had fully pulled me back into the fold by the end of that season. So, with the news that this fourth season of The Good Place will also be its final one, these first few episodes of the show had a lot to prove. They needed to continue to be stellar episodes of television while also laying the groundwork for what will ultimately become the show’s endgame. Do they pull this off? Absolutely. (NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the first two episodes of the season, A Girl From Arizona, Parts 1 and 2, but will remain as spoiler-free as possible for the unaired episodes that NBC has granted critics access to – episodes 3 and 4: Chillaxing and Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy.)
From creator Michael Schur comes a unique comedy about what makes a good person. The show follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife, and thanks to some kind of error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place (which is definitely where she belongs). While hiding in plain sight from Good Place Architect Michael (Ted Danson), she’s determined to shed her old way of living and earn her spot.
Over the course of season three, Michael and the team decided to try to fix the outdated points system after discovering that nobody has entered the Good Place for over 500 years. They convinced the Judge (guest star Maya Rudolph) on the idea of setting up a new neighborhood in the Medium place to see, once and for all, if humans can improve themselves. The plan is set in motion and four new test subjects, chosen by Shawn (guest star Marc Evan Jackson) and the demons, populate the area with Michael and the group overseeing the experiment. Unfortunately for Eleanor, she is forced to assume the role as Architect, following Michael’s sudden breakdown, and must also deal with the repercussions following Chidi’s (William Jackson Harper) decision to make the ultimate sacrifice and have his memory erased.
Also seeking redemption is elegant Pakistani-British socialite Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and dance-obsessed Floridian Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). They are aided by Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a human-esque repository for all the knowledge in the universe.
As the season opens, we are thrust back into the Medium Place where Eleanor and the rest of the Soul Squad are beginning their experiment to prove that other humans (besides themselves) can improve if given the chance to do so. We are quickly introduced to the new subjects – the previously revealed Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and John (Brandon Scott Jones) – and Brent (Benjamin Koldyke), the very definition of a misogynistic jerk, and Linda (Rachel Winfree). These new humans all prove to be pretty good foils for our remaining Soul Squad – Chidi had his memories erased so his past with Simone wouldn’t interfere with the experiment and, as a result, is a defacto member of the new experiment himself – as each seems perfectly chosen to torture a specific member of the Soul Squad (Simone for both Eleanor and Chidi, Brent for Eleanor, John for Tahani, and Linda for Jason). Still, Eleanor and the gang truly believe they can overcome these obstacles and prove to the Judge (Maya Rudolph) that humans really can change for the better if given the chance (and a points system that might actually reward them correctly). Naturally, of course, things don’t really go according to plan. Almost as soon as the experiment begins, things start falling apart in increasingly hilarious ways. Simone refuses to accept that she is even dead, Linda refuses to show any enthusiasm or participate in any of the activities, and both John and Brent refuse to show any self-awareness to their situations and continue to act the exact same as they did on earth – Brent going so far as to treat Janet as his own personal secretary – much to her chagrin. And from there, of course, things only get wackier.
Something that I really love about The Good Place is how the writers always know exactly how long to play out a joke or a plot point. As soon as Linda’s shtick starts to grow old, the writers reveal that Linda is actually a demon from the Bad Place sent to spy on the gang. Later, in episode two, as Eleanor’s reluctance to do what needs to be done in regards to introducing Chidi to Simone, the writers finally give her that last push needed to make her do it – through a really touching speech from Michael. Then, in later episodes, as it seems like a particular plot or character arc is about to wear thin, the writers quickly resolve it or push it in a new and exciting direction. All of these writers have such a grip on the elements that make this show work that it makes it so easy to just trust them and sit back and enjoy the ride – because, usually, any questions we have will end up answered in a few episodes’ time.
It’s a bit unfortunate that NBC has decided to air the first two episodes of this season – A Girl From Arizona (Parts 1 and 2) – separately over two weeks instead of back-to-back in the series’ tradition of having hour-long premieres as the two episodes definitely benefit from being viewed as a one-hour special. Together, they are a perfect reintroduction to this world and the new mechanics of this season. But kept apart, neither of them quite feels as satisfying as you’d like them to be. The first episode ends with the uncovering of Linda, but the actual emotional throughline (Eleanor’s inability to truly believe she can pull this whole thing off) is left unresolved at the end of the first episode. On the flip-side, the second episode doesn’t have anything as compelling plot-wise as Linda being uncovered as a spy, so it lacks a bit of the energy that part one has, even though it does a brilliant job at resolving the emotional arcs of the premiere. Had the episode just aired as a single, hour-long premiere, these issues wouldn’t be there, so it seems unfair to really ding the episode for them. A Girl From Arizona is still an excellent premiere for the season, perfectly setting up the storylines for the next few episodes while reintroducing us to these characters we love and giving us a whole lot of laughs along the way.
As for those upcoming episodes? Well, they’re just as good as – if not better than – the premiere! Both episodes vary in tone, as many of the best episodes of The Good Place do, but they both push forward the overarching storyline in really exciting ways. Both of them are very funny. And both of them give us some really delightful character moments that continue to reveal new things about these characters that we love. It’s really nice seeing how these writers are crafting this final season. In many ways, it’s fairly predictable – we all knew that Eleanor would have to introduce Chidi to Simone at some point. We all know that various story beats will probably be hit. But the joy of this show lies in the journey through which we get to those story beats. Like every season prior, the fourth episode ends with a pretty great twist that pushes the next batch of episodes into new and exciting territories and, as always, I remain excited to see where these writers will take these characters next.
All in all, these first four episodes of the final season of The Good Place are as excellent as ever. All of the actors continue to bring their A-games to this show and it really, really shows. The show remains devilishly funny, really interesting, and somehow grounded amongst all of these fantastic elements it enjoys luxuriating in. These episodes set up a very interesting road for this final season. Many of us may suspect where the road will end – and we may, even, be correct about that ending – but one thing we can’t say for certain is just how the show will get us to that ending. And that’s always fun. Things that have predictable elements are not always bad. Sometimes being somewhat predictable is good; it means that you can lure the audience into a sense of security while still surprising them with twists and turns along the way. It turns the story from being about an ending to being about the journey to the ending. And that really sums up the show’s MO in general. Life is always about the journey; it’s not about where you end up, but how you get there and what you do on that road. The Good Place is not about where the show will end, but how we get there. And these first four episodes prove to be an extremely fun beginning to this crazy road trip we’ll call season four – and I’m so excited to see where we go next. These episodes demonstrate a show that’s firing on all cylinders. The writing is excellent. The acting is excellent. Everything is excellent. There just aren’t enough positive things I can say. If you’re not watching The Good Place, then you just really need to. No words will convince you, and words don’t really do the show justice. It’s so funny, so intelligent-yet-dumb, and so well-made.
4.5 out of 5 wands