THE SHOW "The Good Place" series finale
WHEN | WHERE 8:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC/4
WHAT IT'S ABOUT The 90-minute series finale, "Whenever You're Ready," is described as: "Various conversations occur." While a review screener was not made available, the contours are obvious — Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Janet (D'Arcy Carden), Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Michael (Ted Danson) are at last in the Good Place. (Yes, the real one.) But if they want to leave, they have to walk through the green double doors. What lies on the other side?
MY SAY "The Good Place" was about four dead people who were sent to the bad place, then ended up at the medium place and are now finally in the good place. Any questions? Perhaps a few.
Over four seasons and 52 "chapters" (episodes), all the while collecting awards and fans and achieving cult status, this strange little comedy stuffed the equivalent of an elephant into a shoe box. Swirling with ideas — elephantine ones — "The Good Place" was largely consumed with just one: Can people become better? The whole spread of western philosophy was enlisted in the effort, while Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) took a central if not quite starring role. Less comedy, more thought experiment, "Place" sometimes succeeded, sometimes stumbled and sometimes, of necessity, threw its hands in the air.
You often wondered whether NBC even knew what it had on its air Thursdays at 9, and if so, what the "network notes" must have looked like. (Suit: "Do we really need to have Hypatia of Alexandria in this? She's, I dunno, so last millennium.") But the elephant survived, the shoe box was shredded and "The Good Place" ends as one of TV's most exhilarating sitcoms.
But why? Newcomers to this show would be baffled and should be. Veteran fans were at times. The show's roots conspicuously reached back to the Age of Enlightenment (1715-1789), and Newton's clockwork universe, which almost seemed to abdicate the idea of human freedom because if the universe was a clock, then human fate was already predetermined. "The Good Place's" beloved Kant stepped into the breach with his "categorical imperative" — that actions do indeed matter, good and bad choices especially, and that people can deduce those simply by thinking them out, or subjecting them to "pure reason."
As did poor Chidi, the only self-appointed Kantian in the long history of prime time. But Chidi understood that one choice begets another and another after that, until a certain moral butterfly effect takes hold. What initially seemed a good or moral choice, could lead to a bad or immoral outcome down the road. Chidi thus became paralyzed with inaction, drove friends crazy, and ended up in the bad place as punishment. And … welcome to "The Good Place!"
Over four seasons, questions of morality were pulled apart with rhetorical tweezers. Complex rules with an infinitely complex points system were uncovered. Punishments were meted that did not match the crime which then became the foundation for entire seasons (or the third one anyway). While Chidi was stuck on Kant, "The Good Place" bravely pushed forward into Nietzsche, and his eternal recurrence (each character was rebooted some 800 times), then on into existentialism, with its own lonely, wind-swept preoccupations. If life is meaningless, then imagine how meaningless the afterlife must be? Last week's "Patty" with Lisa Kudrow as Hypatia explored some of that.
But the show found comedy in the central paradox, pathos as well. If to become "better" is impossible — the prevailing philosophical position circa 2020 — then what hope has Chidi? Or anybody?
With its big heart and boundless optimism, "The Good Place" forged ahead. "We've been asking the wrong question," Michael said in an earlier chapter this season. "What matters is, are [people] trying to be better today than they were yesterday? You ask me where my hope comes from? There's your answer."
And there's your show — a beautiful one.
BOTTOM LINE Maybe more intellectually satisfying than comically, "The Good Place" still ends as a triumph and future classic.