(Spoilers for the finale of The Good Place below. Also for Memento, although if you haven’t seen Memento by now, that’s kind of on you.)
In the age of Peak TV, shows are always starting and stopping with little regards to things like “seasons” or “sweeps periods” or “any disregard for anyone’s sleep.” So having NBC’s sneaky comedy The Good Place end in the middle of January is both disheartening but also par for the course at this point. When God closes a door, Michael invents a new form of hell.
Those looking for a twist were richly rewarded in last week’s finale, which answered the primary question of why everything has felt so off during the show’s 13-episode first season. Marrying the open-hearted comedy of Parks And Recreation to the rigid narrative structure of a serialized drama would have fallen apart in lesser hands. Luckily, Michael Schur’s hands are quite steady, and while there are a few things with which to quibble about how everything rounded into shape, this was still one of the best shows of the past six months.
Most intriguing about the twist lay in its applicability to our current situation on the other side of the television right now. Yes, it’s easy to find sudden applicability in a lot of things right now: If you’re looking for something to either confirm or rally against the garbage fire of reality, then chances are you’ll find it. But what struck me the most about The Good Place was not its relationship to Lost, whose structure the show resembled, but Captain America: Civil War, whose ethos it echoed.
In Civil War, the film’s antagonist is simultaneously the weakest and most effective villain thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you wanted to argue that Taylor Swift’s ex-boyfriend Tom Hiddleston is the more charismatic, breakout antagonist of that oeuvre, I won’t argue. But Daniel Brühl’s Baron Zemo is the one that lingers the longest, because he taps into something altogether more relatable and realistic. It’s fun to watch a theatrical god of chaos chew the scenery. But it’s downright disquieting to watch a patient man with no powers succeed in making The Avengers disassemble from within.
Both The Good Place and Civil War suggest something that’s been a hallmark of both fiction and basic sociology: We are our own worst enemies. Neither piece of pop culture is claiming this as a new psychological insight. But it’s one that’s worth examining as we live under a President whose primary move is pitting people against one another rather than direct their anger towards him. Even when people know he’s doing it, they simply can’t help themselves. He prospers, and we sink further into the muck and the mire.
What makes the finale of The Good Place so bracing is that it endorses the idea that differences can provide bonds rather than chains. Michael’s plan to create a hell specifically to drive the more protagonists mad is straight outta Jean-Paul Sartre, but it’s also straight outta InfoWars. Understanding the human capacity for self-preservation, self-delusion, and self-aggrandizement, Michael set into motion a social experiment for demons to watch humans torture each other in hell as well as on earth. Looking back, what unfolded was The Truman Show if the audience were architects of eternal damnation.
Why torture these four? For the same reason that the Duke brothers from Trading Places switched Louis Winthorpe III with Billy Ray Valentine: To see what would happen. It’s a “what if” for them, and a “holy shit” for everyone else. There’s no emotional investment in the outcome of the experiment. There’s curiosity if the hypothesis plays out, but there’s little downside for the organizers if it does not. Michael might have more at stake than the Duke brothers in succeeding, but the mind erasure still means that any setback is a minor inconvenience at best.
The twist allows for what felt like an extremely small story (woman accidentally gets into heaven and has to hide this fact) into one that could nominally play out over several seasons. Season two could be about the characters fighting that mindwipe and remembering everything that is going on. Season three could introduce members of the REAL Good Place. Season four could be the inevitable crossover with Supernatural, a show that will somehow still be on the air even if there’s a nuclear winter between seasons three and four of The Good Place. Season five will drop all at once in the Netflix chip that will be embedded in your brain, because that’s how you watch shows in 2021.
Was it perfect? Of course not. I’m less worried about everything holding up upon rewatch and more worried about the show introducing my absolute least favorite TV trope: The rewriting of reality. I think this trope works great in film and in individual episodes of TV (such as the outstanding 2015 Doctor Who episode “Heaven Sent”), but when it pops up on shows in which fans have an attachment to certain characters, it can be a total buzzkill. One of the most disheartened episodes I can remember is the season three Fringe finale “The Day We Died,” which took one of the best shows on the air and threw it into a feces-filled Port-O-Potty. I likewise rage-quit The Flash this season after its premiere, because I couldn’t bear to go down another road of characters we knew spending ages coming to re-learn all the things they forgot and we on this side of the screen still remembered.
To be fair, I have no idea what followed on The Flash, so maybe they came up with the mother of all solutions to Barry Allen being the dumbest person in the multiverse. And it’s possible The Good Place likewise has a plan to avoid simply having its core four reach the thirteenth episode of season two (provided there is one) and then reset again. In fact, it’s almost certainly not going to go down that way. But watching TV is different than watching a film: a twist like the one in Memento is GREAT for Memento, and would be totally shitty for Jane The Virgin. Imagine if the final episode of Jane The Virgin revealed that Abuela had made up every single event in her brain, and also that she had killed Jane decades before the show actually started. The Narrator would lose his cool, but not as much as anyone who had watched all 346 episodes of Jane The Virgin.
(Yes, I’m overly optimistic about the number of seasons this show would run, but see the above re: “world” and “garbage fire” and cut me some slack already.)
Hell for TV fans is having the characters they care about ripped away from them. That doesn’t mean showrunners owe fans anything when it comes to those characters. Writers write, viewers watch. But writers shouldn’t be surprised when they have characters make choices that are surprising for all the wrong reasons. A surprise twist that reveals hidden depths of character are why we watch TV. But a surprise twist that robs us of any semblance of the character we loved (or loved to hate) is more egregious than any plot twist. Plots are malleable and ultimately meaningless on the small screen. Sure, occasionally a rock-solid, air-tight narrative drops into our laps and it’s savory as hell. But that’s the exception to the rule, and secondary to characters that worm their way into our hearts over the course of weeks, months, and years.
All of that’s to say that The Good Place had a helluva first season and set itself up with some self-imposed hurdles it now has to overcome. Other great shows have stumbled at exactly this point in the narrative. Let’s hope NBC allows us to see what Schur and company have planned next Fall.