Why It Wasn't Hard To Say Goodbye To 'The Good Place'

This week's Friday Snapshot digs into one of the most satisfying series finales in recent memory

It’s Friday, February 14, 2020, and here’s where we are…

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This is a little bit of a weird week because I tapped out on this week’s new movies. Completely. There is no part of me that is even slightly interested in Sonic The Hedgehog. If it pushes your nostalgia button, great. Have at it. I don’t really care for the “computer-animated character on a road trip adventure with a long-suffering human sidekick” genre that is made up of such notable entries as Alvin and the Chipmunks and Hop, but I acknowledge that James Marsden is an affable pick as the human sidekick. It’s just not my bag. I doubt I will ever see it, even if you tell me that Jim Carrey is VERY LOUD in it.

I guess I’ll see Fantasy Island? Maybe? I haven’t heard anything good from anyone working on it, though, and it’s a bummer. While I don’t really care about the endlessly churning IP ocean that we’re all trapped in right now, there are ideas that have potential for something new or interesting, and Fantasy Island seems like a pretty fertile possibility to me. I was young enough when it was on the air that it seems very different in my memory that it does when you look at those episodes now. A place you go that grants all your dreams is a terrific set-up for morality plays because whatever you wish for is going to lay bare your true nature as a human being. You can’t hide from your own deepest darkest wish. I like Jeff Wadlow. I wish Jeff Wadlow well with this. But I’m not rushing out to see it, and the publicists on the film never bothered to send an invite for a screening, so I’m not smelling confidence in the air.

Both The Photograph and Ordinary Love sound like the kind of films that I’ll see at some point but that don’t compel me to leave the house. I’ve gotten angry e-mails when I’ve said something like that before from people sputtering about how “it’s your job!!” to go see everything, but that’s not really true. That’s not what our shared culture is. Things rise. Things vanish. Some things make a huge noise. Some things are frustratingly ignored. It is not fair. It is not always based on what is good or what is bad. Both Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield are movie stars, and I think Kelvin Harrison Jr. gave two of last year’s best performances. The Photograph looks like a tender, sincere romantic drama from the trailers. I will probably watch it with my girlfriend when we can cuddle up together on the couch. For many couples, I’m sure that’s what their Valentine’s Day plans involve, and it’s smart programming by Universal on that front. But I don’t go see many romantic dramas at press screenings, and I review very few of them, and it’s not for the reasons you’d think.

I’ve had it trained out of me by… you. The readers. The traffic for movies like this is nil. Nothing we did to cover them helped, and eventually, we stopped. I found much of the HitFix experience frustrating, but I learned a lot about the way readers showed up for things and what kinds of material they would actually support with page views. I’m trying to unlearn those habits here, and when I write a column like Adventures on the Plex Server, I’m not chasing page views anymore. That’s going to be about my own personal weird tastes and interests, and I’m going to have to trust that you’re interested in that. When I see something I like, regardless of genre, I want to give it some space here. It’s precisely because of that conditioning that I looked at the invites for The Photograph and Ordinary Love and automatically went “I can’t use it.” Am I curious about a film in which Liam Neeson plays an older man losing his wife? Yes. I’m guessing he’s going to give a hell of a performance considering the wealth of material he has to draw on, and I have always liked him as an actor. But I still reflexively think of films as assets that either help me as a publisher or that do not help me, and that’s how I prioritize, and that sucks. It’s real, and I’m working to fix it, and acknowledging it here to you guys is part of that.

Still didn’t see either film, though.

Sitting out Downhill was a little more complicated. I love Force Majeure. And I fundamentally disagree with the idea that we need to make an English-language version of something just to get English-speaking audiences to see it. Nax Faxon and Jim Rash are talented, funny guys, and I have zero issues with casting Will Ferrell and Julia Louis Dreyfuss as the married couple. That’s pretty terrific casting, actually. But why do I need to see this if I saw and loved the original just a few years ago? That’s the thing the trailers never answered for me. At this point, time is the thing I value most, and for me to leave my house in LA to go see something requires a certain interest level. I have to see value in the experience for myself at the very least, and there is something about this kind of super-fast remake that chafes me. I say that and then I remember how much I enjoy Let Me In, and I remind myself that disliking the practice doesn’t mean every film will be irritating, and so, like The Photograph and Ordinary Love, I am sure this will get seen at some point. It just won’t be right away. And it will require me to be in the exact right kind of curious mood to make it happen.

Enough. Enough talking about things I didn’t see. Let’s talk about something I did see, even if I dragged my feet on it a bit…

The Good Place

I feel lucky I watched this as it aired. There was something wonderful about the way that first season reveal landed if you were watching it unfold in real-time, and waiting for each new season, wondering how they were going to twist the show’s fundamental premise, became part of the pleasure of it. My entire family has become addicted to it, and when the finale aired, I agreed to wait until a weekend the boys were here to watch it. That meant waiting a little over a week to see it, which was excruciating, especially watching reactions to the episode land on social media. I just tuned out everything I could and waited and then finally got to settle in with the entire family on a Friday night, watching it the exact right way with the exact right people.

It felt appropriate. Mike Schur has been building, with an amazing array of collaborators in front of the camera and behind it, a body of work that is fairly unique in modern comedy. It is built on some pretty core principles of kindness, community, and diversity. There has been an evolution from show to show, and The Good Place felt like the final form of what he’s been doing so far. What began as a wacky broad high-concept comedy wrapped up as a thoughtful, touching meditation on the meaning of life, and I can’t imagine that’s what they told the network they were going to make. The show regularly name-dropped the greatest thinkers of Western civilization and sometimes played like the world’s funniest PowerPoint presentation on Philosophy 101, and that isn’t a knock. That’s me marveling at the idea that they actually pulled it off, got to make the show, and then actually got to tell the entire story their way. The penultimate episode of the series felt in many ways like a finale, snapping all of the story pieces into place, but that was a canny move because it allowed the final episode to be about saying goodbye, one character at a time, without a lot of plot mechanics getting in the way.

I honestly thought I would be more upset by the end of the series. I’ve come to really love these characters, and these performers, and I’ll miss them. Kristen Bell is blessed when it comes to TV shows so far. Not many people get to play a character as great as Veronica Mars, but to also get to play Eleanor Shellstrop? Talk about an overabundance of blessings. And it’s a perfect fit. She’s such a great hilarious dirtbag, joyful about it, exaggerated just enough to be completely recognizable. Oh, wait… you know who else is blessed? Ted Danson. Again… most actors pray for one Cheers in their lifetime, one iconic role, and now he’s also got Michael Realman on his resume, and I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part this way. Danson’s such a great big lanky weirdo now and Michael’s evolution over the course of the show gave him a real feast of things to play.

As much as I love Bell and Danson as the experienced anchors of the show, one of the joys of the series was being introduced to William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, and Manny Jacinto and watching them grow into one of the most polished, profoundly funny ensembles in comedy. Jamil had arguably the hardest role of the bunch, playing a terrible, self-centered, ego-driven ball of insecurity wrapped in a fashion model package, and it would be so easy to hate Tahani Al-Jamil both in conception and execution. But they threaded that needle, and Jamil managed to find the humanity that drives that insecurity. Playing that honestly gave her permission to be rotten at times, but it always made it clear where it was coming from and how much it was a front for the real person underneath. The Good Place was honest about how damaged and weird we all are, and how that connects us, and it never laughed at its characters, no matter how outrageous it made them. So many sitcoms have done some variation on “the dumb guy,” and Jason Mendoza started as a very broad version of that. Even so, even as they kept scoring huge laughs with his inability to grasp the most basic of things, they wrote Jason as vibrant and alive and lovable and human, and Jacinto played him with such a wide open heart that it was impossible not to love the guy. A huge part of what I loved about the show was the relationship he developed with Janet, the not-a-robot guide to The Good Place who became the show’s least-likely MVP. Carden, like Jacinto, is a stone-cold killer with timing so sharp it’s scary, and she seemed to relish in playing every possible variation of Janet. Bad Janet was delightfully horrible every time she showed up, and I was extra-fond of Disco Janet. Maybe her finest moment was the episode where she got to play variations on every other actor in the show, giving her a chance to show a dizzying comic range. The love story between Jason and Janet was touching because it was so different than any other love story in the details, which only highlighted what it was that made the love so recognizable and special. It was about respect and about loving the whole person (or not-a-person) because of their flaws, not in spite of them.

And that brings us to Chidi Anagonye, my favorite TV character of the last decade. God bless Chidi and his indecision and his ferocious dedication to being a good person. He and Eleanor couldn’t be more unlikely as a couple, which made them hilarious as soul mates when they were being tortured by Michael in the first season, and inevitable as soul mates as the show wore on. Chidi’s monstrously needy drive to be good and Eleanor’s pathological desire to be bad are not polar opposites, but rather very similar drives in different directions, and the show explored the ways they were both good and bad people despite the “big” choices. Rather than trying to make this a hollow exercise in “both sides” moral relativity, The Good Place makes some very firm statements on the point of life and how the order of the universe might make sense, and in doing so, it makes a pretty strong case for why people take comfort from the moral frameworks they choose. I am not a religious person, but that doesn’t mean I think there’s no moral obligation that we have to other people. Far from it. I’ve always struggled in my life to find a label for what I am or what I think, not because I want to use it to separate myself from other people but simply so I could get my arms around it. The truth is, there is no one box I can put all my beliefs in, and so I find myself feeling a bit like Chidi, constantly pulling ideas from different systems to help build a framework that makes sense to me. I thought it was bold to posit a different system than the traditional “good people go to Heaven and bad people go to Hell” dogma that our Western culture sells us, and without becoming a show about religion, it managed to tackle big questions and ideas respectfully, leaving room for people to have their own beliefs without feeling attacked or belittled.

The show would make me belly-laugh week after week. My kids still love to quote one of my favorite Jason Mendoza lines to me (“I hate to be the bearer of bad news…” “I think you mean The Bad News Bears.”) because they know it will make me laugh every time, and I can’t think of another show besides maybe The Simpsons that has ever rewarded freeze-framing and studying the background with this much sustained laughter. But especially in the home stretch, the show also made me cry, and I spent much of that final episode quietly weeping from a combination of joy and sorrow at seeing it all end. Choice after choice, they got it right, and I thought each character’s goodbye was handled beautifully. Jason gets a big unexpected laugh with his return, Michael gets that great scene where he tries to go through the door, and Chidi and Eleanor have their beautiful final night together on the couch. It’s just exquisite. I thought the Mary Steenburgen cameo was devastating, perfectly revealed, and I loved seeing all the little nods to the show’s busy narrative history as things wound down. I thought it would be terribly sad, almost too sad, to get to the very end…

… but it wasn’t. It’s actually that rare ending where I feel like they took the time to walk us through letting go, and the result is an emotionally satisfying conclusion, something that other shows would do well to study. The final episode of The Good Place is not only a beautifully constructed conclusion, it is a thesis statement on how conclusions give a shape to something. Without an ending, there is no story. There’s just an endless parade of events. Where you begin a story matters just as much as where you end it, and The Good Place is a perfectly-bookended example of how to do it right. It ends with some joy, some hope, some tears, and a reminder that all of these beginnings and all of these endings are part of a tapestry, a much larger story. It was a privilege to say goodbye to The Good Place, just as it was a privilege to watch it, and I suspect this is a show I’ll return to several times, just as I return to anything that nourishes me this richly.

As always, any titles in bold were particularly enjoyed.

THIS WEEK’S BOOKS: The Chill by Steve Carson; Girl on Film by Cecil Castellucci; Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life by Phillip Jose Farmer; The Buck Passed Flynn by Gregory Mcdonald; Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris

THIS WEEK’S COMICS: The Immortal Hulk #31

THIS WEEK’S TV: Picard S1 E3; The Good Place S4 E13; Harley Quinn S1 E11; Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet S1 E5 - E9; Curb Your Enthusiasm S10 E4; Avenue 5 S1 E4; Review S2 E7, E8; Ozark S1 E6; This Is Us S4 E13; Survivor S40 E1; Married At First Sight S10 E7; McMillion$ S1 E2; Brooklyn Nine-Nine S7 E3; Columbo S3 E7

THIS WEEK’S GAMING: Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

THIS WEEK’S MOVIES: American Dharma; Taylor Swift: Miss Americana; Parasite; Model Shop; Freaks (2019); The Night Clerk; Midway (2019); Pitch Black; The Invisible Man (2020); The Changeling (1980); The Chronicles of Riddick; Black Christmas (2019); Charlie’s Angels (2019); Extra Ordinary

Image courtesy 3 Arts Entertainment