TV reviews

The Good Place (Season Four) – Review

To everything, as the song lyrics go, there is a season. In the case of The Good Place, there are four of them, which seems to be just the right number.

One thing to be careful of in entertainment circles is never outstaying your welcome. To use a quote which is popularly attributed to the showman P.T. Barnum: “Always leave them wanting more”. Some shows or franchises end up going on far longer than they should, and it’s always a shame to see something go past its best, instead of bowing out on a high during its glory years; we’ve probably all seen our own fair share of examples.

Sometimes, they get it just right, and an exemplification of this is Fawlty Towers, which ran for just two series of just six episodes apiece. It would be hard to argue John Cleese and Connie Booth made the wrong call, as to have gone on for another run may have risked diluting the reputation of what is widely renowned as being one of the all-time great situation comedies. It’s a blessing Cleese never got to make his mooted Fawlty Towers movie, involving Basil and Sybil having an overseas holiday interrupted by their plane being hijacked.

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The secret is knowing when to call it a day, and it seems creator Michael Schur managed to judge The Good Place‘s run to perfection, rounding it out with this fourth and final year. Sure, they could have probably gotten another season out of it, and it might’ve still been of a reasonable standard, but it runs the risk of getting into the law of diminishing returns; that was what happened with Dexter, which is a perfect demonstration of a show failing to get out while the going was good, and squandering all the audience goodwill which had built up.

Every season of The Good Place saw a radical shift in the show’s format, which managed to keep things interesting and fresh for the viewers. Unlike conventional sitcoms, The Good Place’s serialised storytelling meant that it had a real sense of forward momentum, and this progression resulted in us seeing some genuine character growth in each of the six main leads over the course of the run, which has paid off handsomely in these final thirteen episodes.

The show’s original twist was discovering that the setting for events was actually the Bad Place, and that Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto) had all been especially chosen to torture each other for all eternity. This was all as perfect an encapsulation as any of the main principle which underlay French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre‘s play No Exit, in which Hell was found to be other people.

This time round, having literally gone through life (through resurrection) and death together, the foursome – together with the reformed Bad Place architect Michael (Ted Danson) and source of all universal knowledge Janet (D’Arcy Carden) – were tasked with not only proving the current system of the afterlife was inherently flawed, but also with saving all of humanity from being wiped from existence, and having to try and devise a new method of making sure that souls would get to where they should rightfully belong, showing in the process that people can change for the better.

A baker’s dozen-worth of half-hour episodes to try and accomplish all of that – and give a worthwhile sendoff to the show and its characters – is no mean feat. However, The Good Place is a comedy series which has managed to make the complex issues of theology, existentialism and moral philosophy sit comfortably alongside fart jokes, and also consistently confounded expectations at every single turn. As such, it’s no great surprise they managed to pull off such a momentous task, and still have time left over for a valedictory lap of honour.

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There truly aren’t enough superlatives for how glorious the leads have been, taking us along on the characters’ journey of personal growth, and making us so emotionally invested in them. If he hadn’t already done so before appearing in The Good Place, Ted Danson has buried the spectre of Sam Malone in Cheers once and for all, and truly deserves to be thought of as Michael as the ‘go-to’ when anyone mentions his name, rather than the Boston barkeep who loomed large over his acting career.

D’Arcy Carden truly deserves to be a much bigger star after coming to prominence as Janet, especially having managed to pull off multiple – and wildly different – versions of the same character this season. Carden’s interplay with Manny Jacinto has truly given us one of the tenderest – and, at the same time, perhaps most unlikely – of screen romances in Janet and Jason. For those of us who recall Jameela Jamil as a snarky presenter on T4, her reinvention here as a comedy actress is nothing short of a revelation, with her exquisite timing and delivery being a particular delight.

Among such a strong ensemble, it almost seems unfair to single anyone out; however, the show simply wouldn’t have worked without the central love story between Eleanor and Chidi being so warm and believable. For some series – like Moonlighting and Lois & Clark – having main characters become a couple is often the death knell, and means that the shark has well and truly been jumped; here, however, the audience is made to actively root for it, even more so when fate conspires to keep separating them.

It was genuinely heartbreaking to have Chidi offer to have his memories wiped at the end of the previous season, in pursuit of the greater good by ensuring that the afterlife experiment would have the greatest chance of succeeding. The pain of Eleanor having to put on a facade around Chidi was tangible and palpable, which shows the strength of the performances by Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper, making these unlikely soulmates an ideal pairing. It seems fair to say a significant part of the show’s success is down to them, and rightfully so.

Not all TV series are fortunate to reach their intended end, as some sadly end up being unceremoniously cancelled by the network for a variety of reasons. For The Good Place, however, we’re fortunate indeed that Schur got the chance to wrap things up on his own terms, when it felt organically right to do so, instead of having his hand forced. The finale – ‘Whenever You’re Ready’ – is about as good a wrap up for a show as you could ever possibly hope for, and is worthy of five stars on its own.

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To all intents and purposes, the penultimate episode ended in what could have been a fitting conclusion for the series as a whole. However, ‘Whenever You’re Ready’ is a welcome opportunity to bid a proper and final au revoir to everyone, very similar to M*A*S*H’s ‘Goodbye, Farewell And Amen’. The two shows are rather alike in the sense that they both tempered laughter with sadness, and also weren’t afraid to broach difficult subjects, nor to avoid talking down to the audience in the process.

It’s rare to find comedy programmes which stir up a range of emotions, and are deeply affecting, not purely chasing easy, safe laughs at the expense of doing something more profound. From early on, ‘Whenever You’re Ready’ gives the audience what it actually needs, rather than what it wants, and in doing so is all the better for it. If you’ve followed The Good Place and fallen for its charms, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved to tears early on, and carry on being similarly stricken right to the very end.

One of the messages of The Good Place’s latest run is that everything must come to an end; with Season Four having revealed that even the real Good Place isn’t all it’s actually made out to be, and is in many ways a gilded cage, it gives us an important lesson about finding purpose in the time that we have – it’s a treatise not only about the meaning of death, but also life, and managing to ultimately make peace with yourself. You won’t find many profound insights into the human condition in drama series, let alone prime time sitcoms.

It’s a measure of a show’s success that you don’t want it to end, yet it also makes you realise at the same time that it’s the right time to let go. And letting go has been a big part of this finale. While it would have been tempting to leave things as they were at the end of the previous instalment, with it left open-ended and ambiguous for the audience to make up its own minds about what happened next, it’s only right and proper that we get a full stop at the end, so that we can all start the process of moving on through this act of closure.

Without giving anything away about what takes place, the ultimate fates of the characters are all perfectly in keeping with the show, and although in many ways melancholic, it’s also cathartic, and perfectly fitting for each of them. You’d hope The Good Place will end up becoming seen as one of the great modern comedies (or comedy-dramas, given the breadth and range of its tone and subject matter), and it will undoubtedly pay off from repeated viewings, with the climax undoubtedly making going back to the very start for a rewatch an even more rewarding experience.

As hard as it may seem right after watching the end, don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. And it was forking great.

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