With the fourth and final season of NBC’s superlative The Good Place returning to TV screens on Thursday, September 26 (a fitting birthday present for this writer), it’s about time we count a few of our blessings. Although none of us are likely to make it to the actual Good Place—nobody’s gotten in for 521 years, after all—the presence of this wonderful show on network TV for the last four years has managed to make our own drab reality a little bit more Good Place-like.
Michael Schur’s creation is simply incredible television, wonderfully creative from its first moments in redefining what is possible within the constraints of a network “sitcom,” while also showing the capacity to evolve in brilliantly unexpected ways at least once a season. The scope of The Good Place has expanded exponentially throughout, but always in a way that has felt carefully planned and calculated from the start, rather than improvised on the spot. Ending after a fourth season is sad, but it also feels just about right: A comforting thought that this isn’t a series that will ever outstay its welcome (a la How I Met Your Mother), diminishing itself in the process. The Good Place, hopefully, will remain a pristine work of comedy genius from start to finish, which is the rarest of things on TV.
With that said, let’s give thanks for some of The Good Place’s greatest hits by reliving the 10 best episodes of the series before the debut of Season 4. Rather than try to pick an absolute best of the best, we’ll simply list these in chronological order.
Obviously, the pilot episode of The Good Place had a substantial list of tasks it needed to carry out, to quickly familiarize its audience with what the hell is going on in this particular version of the afterlife. It succeeds beautifully, starting with Michael’s information-rich breakdown on the idea of the “points system,” establishing the idea of Doug Forcett, and explaining what Janet is and all the services (and storytelling conveniences) her powers are able to provide. Within minutes, we have a clear idea of what “The Good Place” is supposed to be, and have established a baseline for the show’s setting and quirky sense of humor.
In terms of character, this episode also immediately establishes the heart of the dynamic between Eleanor and Chidi—she’s surprisingly open with him from the get-go, hinting at how his influence will help her change and grow as a person, and he’s … well, very anxious. The first of many stomach aches to come! Right from the beginning, though, the unforeseen chemistry between our four humans begins to bloom—the positive spirit that will continuously foil the demons who are secretly running this fake version of The Good Place.
With that in mind, “Everything is Fine” becomes an almost automatic “I need to rewatch this” episode after the revelation at the end of the season, just to pick up on the little hints that are available from the very beginning that not everything is as it seems here …
The first few episodes of The Good Place slowly build steam by letting us spend some time with each main character, while also allowing Eleanor to realize that she’s not the only member of the group who is seemingly in The Good Place by mistake, but they’re also constrained by having only one primary source of tension—the fear that Eleanor (and Jason) will be discovered as frauds. As an audience member watching the show for the first time, the obvious question to ask at this point is “how long can you really keep this up?” And as it turns out, The Good Place had a great response to that query: You don’t.
Eleanor’s confession that she is what is wrong with the neighborhood throws a massive wrench into the plans of The Bad Place, although we don’t realize this at the time. It’s the first big indicator that Michael’s system will never truly function as intended, because the humans are fundamentally better (each in their own way) than they’ve been given credit for. That truth is the basis of The Good Place’s unstoppable sense of optimism, and this moment is the first of several expansions of the show’s initial conceit. Now, rather than simply keeping a secret, Eleanor’s fight is one to remain in heaven rather than being sent to hell.
“The Eternal Shriek” also just contains a few comedic gems, including Michael’s first explanation of “retirement” for immortal beings, wherein one’s soul is “scooped out with a flaming ladle,” not to mention D’Arcy Carden’s incredibly hilarious “failsafe” measures as Janet as she pleads not to be deactivated.
The big reveal at the end of The Good Place Season 1 truly is pulled off with impeccable aplomb. It’s the kind of moment that reinforced the joys of the series and its characters for those who had watched the initial season play out week by week, while simultaneously expanding on the basic nature of the premise in such a profound way that it immediately begged for the viewer to go back and reexamine every episode from the beginning. As soon as Eleanor is struck by her epiphany, you want to see every moment of the show once again, just to notice the subtle ways that Michael and his demon compatriots have been twisting events from the very beginning.
And once again, it changes the fundamental nature of the series’ conflict. Now, rather than a woman trying to hide her nature or fight to retain a place in heaven, it’s the story of a woman and her friends trying to discover the truth about their true position in hell, and somehow escape from a fate of eternal damnation in the Bad Place. The Soul Squad is fully united at this point, although it’s hard for the audience to see how they’ll possibly stand a chance against beings so omnipotent as Michael. Eleanor’s note to herself—to “find Chidi,” which she initially thinks is some kind of soup—is the most meager of starting points to foil the plans of an immortal architect from beyond, but it’s an incredible hook to return for Season 2. The ending of “Michael’s Gambit” goes down in history as one of the greatest sitcom cliffhangers of all time.
I’m condensing these two episodes into one in acknowledgement of the fact that they really are a single piece of TV content, albeit stretched out into an hour rather than 30 minutes. I’m also unwilling to leave either half of “Everything is Great!” behind, because this is the moment where The Good Place erases any doubts that you’re watching anything other than Great Television. It’s the moment when the show proves its charms aren’t just contingent on the strength of the original, central premise, but that it will instead grow and break through creative barriers to become something ever stranger but more satisfying. It’s nothing less than a TV sitcom watershed moment.
Directly compared against the original pilot of the series—as we are obviously meant to do—it’s a case of “similar events,” but entirely different outcomes. In other words, chaos theory in motion. The audience is now armed with the knowledge that Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason are secretly in the Bad Place rather than the Good Place, giving us an inherent desire to root for the Soul Squad to figure out their new circumstances. Michael is no longer the bumbling, well-meaning heavenly architect—he’s become the series’ lead antagonist. Every character in the neighborhood, in fact, has been given new importance, because we know their true agenda. Even though this show is a comedy, it’s still a masterclass in what is technically suspense: We the audience know something that Eleanor doesn’t, and our desire to see her discover the truth propels the series forward at a lightning pace. Alfred Hitchcock, in his own way, would approve.
Okay, so the “Michael as lead antagonist” era was never bound to last all that long when all is said and done—Ted Danson’s portrayal is simply too wonderful and too sympathetic (he wants to buck the system and create something that has never been done before, despite constant skepticism, which is a very human thing to do) for us to accept him as the grand-high bad guy forever. And so, by the end of “Dance Dance Resolution” we’ve redefined the nature of the show once again: Michael now wants to work with the members of the Soul Squad for their mutual benefit, which works out to safety from Shawn for Michael and the opportunity to continue learning for Eleanor and co., with the prospect of somehow making it to the real Good Place hanging above everything.
Beyond the eventual outcome, however, “Dance Dance Resolution” is audaciously imaginative, paying off everything we’ve learned about Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Michael and Janet to date. Who would really have expected, even at the start of the second season, that a few episodes later you’d have a situation where the neighborhood has been rebooted more than 800 times? And along the way, we see glimpses of so many incredibly interesting could-have-beens, from Tahani as Eleanor’s soulmate to the one time that Jason Mendoza managed to figure out the truth, to Michael’s crushing embarrassment. Moreover, once the time factor (finally explained in “Jeremy Bearimy”) is taken into account, the failed experiments presented in “Dance Dance Resolution” mean that our protagonists have ultimately been growing the bonds of their friendship for more than 300 relative years. Even if they don’t remember the vast majority of that time, it’s one more thing that unites the group in a way that no living humans can match.
Although Eleanor mandates that as part of their deal, Michael joins the gang’s ethics classes, the all-knowing architect is a little slow to get on board with the idea that he can really learn anything new. The few episodes preceding “The Trolley Problem” tackle this reticence, as Chidi helps to slowly break down Michael’s barriers via the instigation of an existential (and then mid-life) crisis, culminating in his seeming desire to learn and understand in “The Trolley Problem.” Of course, most of that is really just a ruse—an excuse to torture Chidi again, which to demons is nigh irresistable—but goddamn if Michael’s flesh and blood recreation of the trolley problem itself isn’t hilarious to behold, as Chidi’s indecision results in geyers of gore covering his face and going “INTO MY MOUTH!” Equally amusing are Michael’s bizarre permutations, which include Chidi’s apparent decision to kill “five William Shakespeares over one Santa Claus.” It’s one of the show’s most inspired moments of pure lunacy.
Ultimately, though, Michael’s apology at the end of “The Trolley Problem” is arguably also the first time in which he sincerely expresses his true feelings to the group in some way. It’s the beginning of his true change from being a demon trying to save his own skin to a legitimate member of the group, who the others regard as a friend.
The growth that is begun by Michael in “The Trolley Problem” is paid off in full once we reach “Leap to Faith,” another strong contender for the show’s best episode. Specifically, I love the way it demonstrates the trust and faith that the members of the Soul Squad have built for one another, Michael included. Eleanor’s satisfied proclamation that they should stay and blindly assume Michael is still on their side, rather than trying to make a break for it, shows how much she’s grown in her capacity to have faith in others, slowly leaving behind her desire to have no strings or attachments to anyone else. It’s an acknowledgement that they’re all stronger together, and one that pays off for the group in the end.
Plus: How adorable is Michael when that train pulls away and he finds his friends deciphered enough of his clues to know where to hide? This is the moment where we indisputably know that Michael has become one of our protagonists, the kind of guy who will sacrifice himself two episodes later in “Rhonda, Diana, Jake and Trent.” Team Cockroach has become a fully united front for the first time.
Even Mindy St. Clair receives a continuity payoff here, as Eleanor finally pays her back for inconveniencing the Medium Place dweller so many times with a gift of cocaine and … MAXIMUM DEREK?!?
The first four episodes of Season 3, in my opinion, is not the strongest run of The Good Place. At this point, we’ve already seen a continuity reset several times, and although the thought of returning to Earth is initially interesting, it tends to pale in comparison to the boundless creative options offered by the afterlife setting. It’s not as if there’s any doubt as to whether the group will end up reuniting, nor can we really buy that Trevor and the Bad Place will manage to infiltrate and sabotage the group effectively.
Once we get to “Jeremy Bearimy,” though, we grapple with an interesting new status quo: The gang is alive on Earth, but they now know what awaits them in the afterlife. This is something we haven’t seen before, and it makes for a great episode to watch each member of the group grapple with information that no mortal is ever meant to possess. Chidi goes off the deep end. Eleanor backslides. Jason and Tahani attempt to be charitable for the sake of charity, and end up married for legal reasons. And each response dovetails nicely with one of the show’s philosophical teachings. Of course, the most important thing is that these revelations are also hilarious: There’s never been anything on The Good Place more instantly iconic, with or without context, than Chidi making his Peeps and M&Ms chili pot. Or freaking out about the “dot above the I” in the “Jeremy Bearimy” timeline. Hell, this is just Chidi’s finest hour in general, the most epic of stomach aches.
The character of Janet experiences one of the most satisfying emotional arcs on The Good Place (only Eleanor and Michael can really compare), in addition to being arguably the show’s most consistently hilarious character. All the credit belongs to the wonderful D’Arcy Carden, who imbues her with a slowly blooming humanity and individuality that just gets more and more impressive as time goes by. It’s something we tried to help others recognize when we named Carden as our #1 TV performance of 2018, which just so happened to come shortly after the actress’ masterpiece: “Janet(s).” Truly, this episode was calculated to give Carden her due after three seasons of stealing scenes, and she knocks it out of the park.
After several episodes that feel like they’re sort of spinning their wheels in place on Earth, the gang ends up back in the afterlife, which always feels more dynamic. More specifically, this time they’re inhabiting Janet’s “void,” a boundless space where anything is possible and the laws of reality can only tangentially be said to exist at all. And oh: All the Soul Squad look like Janet, which means Carden gets to riff on portraying ever member of the gang. And she does this impeccably, capturing the body language and facial expressions of Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto like she’s been doing it all her life. Even more impressively, she at one point portrays Eleanor in Janet’s body, pretending to be Jason, and totally pulls it off! It’s a tour-de-force performance that is impossible to overlook.
The heartbreaker. The most recent episode of The Good Place, prior to the upcoming Season 4 premiere, is more of a guarantee than any other to generate some moistening of one’s eyes. It’s simply not fair that after coming this far, and re-forging their relationship again against all odds, Eleanor and Chidi have to once again surrender to the whims of fate and start from scratch. No, that’s not quite right—only Chidi is having his memory blanked, which is even more tragic—Eleanor must now pretend to be the architect of the neighborhood, hiding her love for Chidi inside while he more likely than not ends up falling for a memory-wiped Simone all over again. If the gang wants this desperate gambit to work, Eleanor in particular is going to have to be emotionally stronger than ever, giving up her own desires (and love) for the greater good. Suffice to say, it’s not going to be easy, but like the members of the Soul Squad, I have faith in their ability to see things through.
But man, what an emotionally intense ride this episode is before its closing moments. When Michael plays a clip reel of Eleanor and Chidi’s many relationships across more than 800 separate timelines, it’s utterly devastating—as is Chidi’s simple “Jeremy Bearimy, baby” as a means of reassurance that everything will be okay. It’s a perfect denouement to the show’s third season, and we can’t wait to see what the fourth and final one has in store.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer currently hovering above the “J” in “Jeremy Bearimy.” You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.