For the most part, I actually do not particularly like The Good Place.
I often find it twee and overly saccharine; as a character drama, it rarely convinces; worst of all, it’s almost never funny. Far moreso than any television show currently airing, The Good Place makes me feel hugely out of step with both critical consensus and the zeitgeist as a whole. (Somewhat ironically, my favourite stretch of the show has been the much-derided third season. Go figure.) Every time it’s appeared on a best of the year list, I’ve been mystified – the fact it’s routinely showed up on best of the decade lists, often in the top twenty or so, is entirely baffling to me.
More than once, I’ve thought about trying to articulate the things that bother me about The Good Place – a few weeks ago I almost wrote a piece I was going to title “The Bad Place” – but it’s never really felt worth it. Unlike, say, Game of Thrones, this critical darling – however much I don’t connect with it – never really felt like it warrants a concerted attempt at a takedown. (For now, anyway; I am quite keenly of the belief that The Good Place is going to age much more poorly than its direct predecessor, Parks and Recreation.) Besides, even if I’m not convinced it’s that good, I don’t think it’s actively bad per se – I mean, if nothing else, I’m still watching it each week. I do enjoy it, however qualified and caveated that enjoyment is.
The Answer – one of the last ever episodes of The Good Place, given it’s coming to a final conclusion at the beginning of next year – is, maybe in light of that, an odd choice for this list. Neatly enough, though, this feels like not only the best episode of The Good Place’s fourth season, but also a fairly neat articulation of all the things I genuinely do love and enjoy in a show I’ve often struggled to get to grips with.
It’s a midseason finale, presented essentially as a clip-show – the sort of cheap contrivance sitcoms use to save money – though here that structural conceit is instead styled around largely new footage. (Clever, but not innovative – the gold standard for this device is surely, as with most sitcoms, Community.) Still, it’s a neat way to reflect on Chidi’s life: taking in all his worries, anxieties and doubts in their entirety. And, much more importantly, it’s a neat way to finally recentre Chidi within the narrative, after side-lining him for too much of this season.
Which is, of course, illustrative of The Good Place’s chief strength, and the reason it’s never quite lost me: that cast, surely amongst television’s most charming. Granted, I’ve never been especially convinced by the show’s comedy credentials – it’s the only show on television I could imagine making a 30-50 feral hogs joke, and I do mean that as a criticism – so for me the appeal has always been primarily in terms of those performances. You could credibly highlight the performance of any of the regulars – they’re all that good, all in their own way the ‘best’ of the cast. It’s better to just appreciate their chemistry as an ensemble, though, because singling any of them out misses the point – it’s not how good they are, it’s how good they are together.
The Answer feels like the first episode this season that really gets this – or the one that comes closest to it, at least. Finally, Chidi – or, actually, more accurately, finally William Jackson Harper, the best actor in the cast – is actually emotionally and narratively present, rather than just flitting about the edges. Yes, it’s a showcase episode for him in much the same way Janet(s) was for D’Arcy Carden, the best actor in the cast (an excellent episode, even if it too wasn’t actually as innovative as it’s often credited as). As a Chidi character study, it’s often poignant, with a sweet sort of levity to it as well, the sort of thing that’d stand out in any show.
But it also, at last, reunites him properly with the other characters, learning something from each: the value of spontaneity from Jason (Manny Jacinto, the best actor in the cast) the significance of failure from Tahani (Jameela Jamil, a better actor than an activist); his first kiss with Eleanor (Kristen Bell, also the best actor in the cast), a neat reminder that everyone who dislikes that relationship is wrong; that final, devastating moment with Ted Danson, the best actor in the cast. Sure, the whistle-stop tour version doesn’t quite emphasise the cast as an ensemble, but it does let them all sparkle. The intimate, thoughtful introspection of The Answer – setting aside the afterlife-lore that’s become as complex as it is twee in favour of something grounded in real emotions – is easy to point to as a high-water mark for the show.
And that’s it from The Good Place, until the (probably, in one last bit of structural playfulness, in real time) two-part finale next month, with the actual answer – even if that’s no answer at all. For a show that I’ve often found frustrating, and don’t think quite deserves the reputation it’s gained – there are two, arguably three, further entries on this list that do a better job of interrogating morality under late-stage capitalism and what we owe to each other – this was a neat reminder of all the ways in which The Good Place actually is, well, good, even when the show itself has recently lost sight of that a little.
So that’s why it’s snuck into tenth place on this list – because I feel like I’ve finally got a little closer to the answer myself.
Check back tomorrow to find out my ninth favourite television show of the year! Well, I say that – I am actually already a little behind where I wanted to be with this, and it’s the election tonight, so that’s obviously going to take up a chunk of time. But I am determined to keep as close to schedule as I can!