Warning: This review reveals significant plot points from the previous three seasons of The Good Place.
NBC’s cosmic comedy The Good Place started in 2016 as a quirky fantasy sitcom starring Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop, a self-proclaimed “Arizona dirtbag” who winds up in the titular heavenly realm due to a clerical error. Her attempts to avoid being detected and booted to the Bad Place didn’t seem sustainable as a long-term story — but that’s because they were never meant to be. Instead, Good Place creator Michael Schur and his team defied sitcom traditions by constantly reinventing the show over the course of three seasons, taking the characters through a version of Dante’s The Divine Comedy that ventured to absurdist versions of heaven, hell, and places in between.
That ambition let The Good Place deliver some incredible plot twists and biting comedy, but it didn’t always work out. Season 3 suffered from whiplash as it changed the frame and stakes too much. The season started out by questioning whether people could improve themselves after having near-death experiences. Then it had the protagonists acting as bodhisattvas, forsaking their own redemption to help others. Then they wound up fighting to correct a broken system that doomed every human to eternal torment. Without a focused narrative, the humor dulled into a series of gags, propped up by guest stars who overstayed their welcome.
The end of season 3 set up a course correction for the series and its cosmology, bringing the characters back to the Good Place neighborhood where the show started. Schur tasked them with trying to redeem the souls of four dead people, and through them, all humanity. The return to familiar turf works beautifully as the show moves into its fourth and final season, setting up plenty of funny and sweet callbacks. It also shows how much the characters have grown, and how far they’ll still have to go to achieve their goals.
Season 4 picks up immediately after the season 3 finale. Eleanor has taken on the role of the neighborhood’s divine architect, though the cosmic suburb is actually being held together by the near-omniscient artificial being Janet (D’Arcy Carden). They’re joined by the reformed demon Michael (Ted Danson), the perpetually name-dropping socialite Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), and the dumb but endearing troublemaker Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) on a mission to prove that four humans can change for the better, even if they were bad people throughout their lives.
That’s no easy task, given that the damned souls the crew is out to redeem include John Wheaton (Brandon Scott Jones), a gossip columnist chosen by the Bad Place to torment Tahani. Even more challenging is Brent Norwalk (Ben Koldyke), a living embodiment of white male privilege who drops random jabs at Captain Marvel into rants about political correctness. He also wants to know why he isn’t spending eternity with a list of buddies that’s clearly modeled off the group of hard-partying high-school friends that surrounded Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The team is also one member down, after indecisive philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) agreed to have his memories erased to help his season 3 love interest, neurologist Simone Garnett (Kirby Howell-Baptiste).
Putting the characters back in their old neighborhood lets them revisit earlier plots and behaviors from a new perspective. Eleanor feels almost like Bethany Sloane in Dogma, a normal person saddled with saving the world while still grappling with her own insecurities. Michael, who held the architect role in the first and second seasons as a means of getting humans to emotionally torture each other, has stepped back to let Eleanor shine, but he still delivers some wonderful inspirational speeches that remind viewers of his old wicked ways. His salvation in previous seasons might have seemed rushed, but this season, he’s quick to remind viewers that he knows the other characters so well because he studied the best ways to hurt them.
Tahani is also clearly still struggling to let go of the insecurities that damned her. While her best moments will always involve sharing ludicrous celebrity-laden anecdotes, she has some genuinely touching moments bonding with John by showing how a desire for status can hurt people on both sides of the velvet rope. The writers are also working hard to find more to do with Jason, the cast’s least improved player. He delivers some great laughs in his trashier interactions with Eleanor, but as of episode 4 of the new season, he’s clearly on a path that will push his character to catch up with his compatriots’ growth. (NBC made the first four episodes of the 14-episode season available to critics before the premiere.)
Wiping Chidi’s memory lets the show bring back the neurotic, anxious version of the character that Eleanor eventually fell in love with, and it sets up a major conflict, as she’s forced to put aside her feelings for him and drive him and Simone together for the good of the group’s moral experiment. The Good Place has always spent a lot of time dwelling on philosophy, but the overt lectures have taken a back seat this season, aside from Chidi getting Simone to accept that she’s in the afterlife, not just undergoing a complicated hallucination while dying. That scene is a sweet moment that rekindles the strong chemistry the actors had in season 3, even if it does mark an end to Simone’s hilarious attempts to prove she’s dreaming, which include showing up to a fancy party wearing foam hands.
Season 4 has fewer scenes in actual classrooms, but the show’s philosophical underpinnings are still key. The focus has shifted to utilitarianism, with both Eleanor and Chidi sacrificing their personal happiness for the greater good. Agents of the Bad Place, led by Michael’s vengeful but acerbic former boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), are trying to stymie the protagonists’ experiment at every turn, but the show hints at a possible compromise that would be in everyone’s best interests.
In season 1, the main characters become better people because they’re being tortured, and have to work together to help each other. When Chidi is stripped of responsibility and anxiety in the new version of the neighborhood, he rests on his laurels. He only starts to help others when he’s pushed into a situation that makes him deeply uncomfortable. In that way, The Good Place suggests that people behave better when they’re uncomfortable, and that the best outcome for humanity might involve at least a little pain. (Just not the Bad Place’s ideal of an eternity of repeated dick-flattening and reinflating.)
In season 4, the dialogue feels a bit sharper than it did in season 3. And episode 4, “Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy,” comes the closest the show’s gotten to its highest point: season 2’s episode “The Trolley Problem.” The new episode has the usual splashes of absurdist humor, most notably a Pictionary drawing that comes to life as a nightmare creature. But it becomes a bottle episode that delves into the show’s fragile group dynamics, the nuances of its cosmology, and the strengths and weaknesses of individual characters, all by confronting the crew with the possibility that they have a Bad Place spy among them.
The writers clearly thought through all the easy ways out of the problem, building a conflict that explores the ethics of lying and the potential for redemption, while also leaving plenty of room for hilarious gags like Jason being way too eager to see Michael’s horrifying demonic form. It’s The Good Place at its best, using a moral dilemma to force its dysfunctional cast of characters to work together, and cutting what could be a saccharine moral with barbed jokes and startling twists. If the rest of the season can deliver more episodes of that caliber, then the show will be able to save itself from its season 3 purgatory and return to the divine heights it’s capable of reaching.
Season 4 of The Good Place premieres on Thursday, September 26th on NBC at 9PM ET.