Best of 2019 | #10 – The Good Place 4×09, “The Answer”

the good place the answer daniel schofield valeria migliassi collins ted danson william jackson harper michael chidi best of 2019 top ten review

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!

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Weekly Watchlist #9 (28th Oct – 3rd Nov)

Much more stuff this week!

Daybreak (Netflix)

This has really captivated me – very easy to dismiss as derivative (because, well, it absolutely is), but with just enough flourish to occasionally feel very inspired. Oddly, it’s not the most confident show – for every step it takes towards a new idea, it quickly hurries two steps back to comforting archetypes – but when it gets things right it absolutely soars. I’d struggle to recommend it wholeheartedly, but at the same time it’s clearly not a bad show: just one I wish was a little more willing to trust its best instincts.

Defending the Guilty (BBC Two)

It never quite managed to solve the flaw I highlighted a while ago – the lack of development for Will’s girlfriend – which becomes harder to ignore as the series concluded. At the same time, though, I still really enjoyed this: it’s funny and it’s moving, with a brilliant cast and a killer soundtrack. The ending invites a second series I’m not sure is wholly needed – but I really can’t wait for more.

House of Games (BBC Two)

I normally tend not to include all the quiz shows I watch in these listings, but I just wanted to note for posterity that I got an answer about Virginia Woolf very quickly this week, and I was very proud of myself.

That’s all.

In the Long Run (Sky One)

It’s easy to forget just how good a comic talent Idris Elba is, given his more high-profile outings tend towards the dramatic – even then, this loosely-autobiographical piece feels like it’s flown especially under the radar, not really making a huge impact on people’s impressions of Elba. (I’d bet more people know about his DJ work than this show. Actually, I’d bet more people would know him from Bond rumours than this show, and that’s probably never going to happen.)

That’s a shame – In the Long Run is a charming, funny little show, the sort of thing that I could very easily see being just as loved as Derry Girls or Stath Lets Flats if it too had found a home at Channel 4.

Motherland (BBC Two)

Admittedly, “I really can’t wait for more” is also exactly how I felt about Motherland’s first series; this year’s effort is much more easily written off. I could never quite put my finger on what changed – and maybe if I went back and rewatched the first series, I’d be disappointed by that as well. Either way, it’s been a disappointing year

Riverdale (Netflix)

Halloween is absolutely the best time of year for Riverdale. Wait a few months and I’ll say the same about Christmas, though – this is a show that really thrives on excess and exaggeration, so the heightened nature of any holiday always makes for an especially fun instalment of Riverdale nonsense.

Superstore & The Good Place (NBC, Netflix)

Doing these ones together, because I remain of basically the same mind about each – Superstore is just about recovering from a rough start, while The Good Place continues to tread water, increasingly prompting me to realise again (as is the case with every new season of The Good Place) that I just don’t love it. Both these shows might end up bumped from the weekly watchlist – I’ll still keep on top of them, of course, but I’m definitely not going to have something new to say about them each week.

Favourite show of October: I suspect ‘favourite’ is probably the wrong word here – I’d want to very heavily caveat it in this instance – but Daybreak is undeniably the show that’s made the most impression on me, and I suspect the one I’ll be thinking about longest.

Best new show of October: Again, I think it has to be Daybreak.

Most looking forward to in November: Lot of possibilities here – I have high hopes for His Dark Materials, some measured interest in a few of the Apple+ shows, and I haven’t quite got around to Watchmen yet so we’ll call that a November show – but it’s hard not to choose The End of the F***ing World series 2. Absolutely loved the first series, and really curious to see how Jessica Barden fills the role of the lead.

You can look at other Weekly Watchlists here. If you liked this article and you want to support what I do, you can leave a tip over on ko-fi, or back my Patreon here.

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