Watching “The Good Place” is an oft-overwhelming experience. Whether it’s trying to guess what swearwords match up with “cork blork,” or identifying the casual burn tossed at an overinflated celebrity, or simply absorbing the love, trust, and goodwill baked into the core cast, Michael Schur’s NBC comedy has become an addictive rush and a mind-boggling comedy machine all in one. Season 4 keeps the twists coming and jokes flying, patching over some foundation blocks in the first couple of episodes before coming together for what looks like one last crazy adventure to hell– er, to The Bad Place and back.
At the end of last season, the merry gang of bad people who got good — Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto — had found a flaw in the point system that decided who went to The Good Place and who went to The Bad Place. Over the last 500 years, no one who died scored high enough to get into The Good Place. So Michael (Ted Danson) struck a deal with the Neutral Zone’s Judge Gen (Maya “Give her an Emmy already, my God” Rudolph) and the Bad Place’s Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson) to greenlight a new experiment to determine, once and for all, if humans can actually improve themselves.
Sound familiar? It should. The new experiment is very much like the original experiment, only with opposite intentions. Instead of Michael’s fake Good Place being used as a secret torture chamber for Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason, it’s being used as a setting for the reformed demon to run experiments on four new test subjects, chosen by Shawn. Considering Michael and the gang want the same result — for the four test subjects to improve themselves and figure out the experiment — many of Michael’s original tricks are reimplemented on these new characters.
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Trial and error has long been a reusable construct in “The Good Place,” as Season 2’s string of reboots and Season 3’s resurrection of old patterns proved. The cast is charming enough, the dialogue sharp enough, and the production design lovely enough for viewers to enjoy seeing the same cycles, slightly altered — which is good, because they’re also required to move the plot forward. With his latest NBC endeavor, Schur created a compelling twist on traditional sitcoms: Yes, he’s still plopping his core cast into different situations each week, but those situations add up and move the plot. There’s consequence to the repetition itself. Many famous broadcast ensemble comedies pick and choose what events their characters remember from week to week (with big things like births, deaths, marriages, and break-ups being understood to always count), but “The Good Place” builds and builds, using it all as he flies forward.
That being said, the first three episodes of Season 4 are a touch wearying. As the writing team scrambles to set up a new mission out of old parts, once again showing how an individual’s free will can muck up the best laid plans of gods and demons, the episodic structure gets a little shaky, the focus goes a tad adrift, and the engine driving us toward an end — this is the final season — is a bit slow to turn over.
Part of it is a classic sitcom problem: adding new cast members. Bringing in people to a group this talented, with this much chemistry is always a risk; it’s hard for anyone to live up to their standard, especially after spending four seasons with the forkers. So even when the new people are good, their stories functional, there’s a feeling that we’re looking the wrong way — Schur is dangling a shiny object in his left hand while steering the car with his right.
Once he lets us focus on the road, things improve. The right people take center stage, and there’s a rhythm to the fourth episode that brings back all the mushy feelings of “The Good Place” at its peak. There’s always been a lot to admire here: The world building in Season 1 was savvy and exciting. The ambitious twist that set up Season 2 is one for the ages. The earnestness with which the series explores ethics and morality has become its own charming form — you want to learn more, so long as Chidi is teaching the class.
But Schur has clearly made the right choice to end “The Good Place” now. As much as you hate to say goodbye to a cohesive cast at their creative peak, not to mention a writing staff who can make literally anything shockingly fun (remember what I just said about ethics lessons?), it would be worse if a show running this fast ran out of road. Fifty-three episodes is a lot of serialized television, and for as well as the sitcom elements of “The Good Place” can help smooth out the trickier plot turns, you don’t want to see such a significant series become inconsequential. There’s been a lot of valuable signposts along the way, as each character imparts a bit of learned wisdom from their perilous, hilarious adventure. But there’s at least one big road sign left. Schur wants to take us somewhere meaningful, and by now, you just know he’s going to leave us some place good.
“The Good Place” Season 4 premieres Thursday, September 26 at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.