Pandemonium! In Season Three, The Good Place Discovered the Exhilaration and Exhaustion of Storytelling at Full Tilt

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Pandemonium! In Season Three, <i>The Good Place</i> Discovered the Exhilaration and Exhaustion of Storytelling at Full Tilt

Coming out of “Chidi Sees the Time-Knife,” the penultimate episode of The Good Place’s Season Three, I was genuinely disappointed that we’d be getting so little time with Michael (Ted Danson) and Janet’s (D’Arcy Carden) experimental Good Place neighborhood and the four newly deceased humans chosen by the Bad Place to inhabit it.

Before you get too tied up in knots trying to match up that reaction up with how last night’s finale actually played out, let me establish that mine wasn’t the knowing disappointment of a critic with any kind of inside scoop—we were left to watch the finale live with the rest of America, with no hint about what was to come beyond the widely snickered at program description, “Various events occur, in a certain specific order.” When I felt overwhelmingly bummed at the end of “Chidi Sees the Time-Knife,” it was with the resignation of a person who’s had the football pulled out from under her enough times to learn her lesson. In this case: As The Good Place giveth, so it quickly and without remorse taketh away. For Mike Schur and crew, there is no storyline, no character arc, no fiddly plot point that can’t be plucked out of the Jeremy Bearimy slipstream, pulled and twisted into a brand new shape, and stuck back in at a point you’d never expect. On The Good Place, you can’t trust anything to stay still. On The Good Place, not even death is eternal. Getting invested in any single element too deeply? A fool’s game, if there ever was one.

Now, I did worry, when hit with that wash of preemptive disappointment, that I was succumbing to another bout of what one of my similarly afflicted friends has termed adaptive contrarianism. Of all the half-hour comedies currently in production, The Good Place is among the kindest, funniest and most ambitious; if it is not the kindest, funniest and most ambitious, that is only because it has to vie with that other Schur-adjacent joint, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for top honors. Even then, the crisp serialization and goofy esoteric philosophizing of The Good Place is hard (impossible) to beat. Which is all to say: This is exactly what my adaptive contrarianism lives for.

Still, as Season Three zipped from one Wham Episode to the next, and as literally every human being on the planet (roughly speaking) joined together on social media to gush over the latest viral Good Placeism (“What kind of messed up country would turn away refugees?”) or to marvel at the latest unlikely-but-perfect marriage of fart joke and humanity lesson (“What if [all these new emotions] come out my butt?”), the more I felt delirious with the certainty that, as the poet said, the center—at least narratively—could not hold. “The Good Place is the smartest dumbest show on television!” less contrary viewers than I would (rightly!) declare, but all I could see was story door after story door being slammed shut before we even got our toes over the threshold, and all I could hear was that same poet going on, “Mere anarchy loosed upon the world!” When I logged onto one of my Slack channels and found that the #tv discussion of “Chidi Sees the Time-Knife” opened with someone opining that they, too, hoped that the show wouldn’t wrap the “New Good Place thing” in just one episode, and everyone else responded in full-throated agreement about how important it is to get to see how the new characters interact with the neighborhood as a validation of the show’s premise, I knew I wasn’t a crackpot: The center cannot hold.

Of course, a series made up entirely of Wham Episodes doesn’t have to be mere anarchy—or even if it does, that doesn’t mean that anarchy is necessarily a bad way to tell a story. With six storylines vying for center stage in each episode, The CW’s Jane the Virgin has been from the beginning one Wham Episode after another, and has thrived because of it. Before Jane, there was The Vampire Diaries, whose blaze across Twitter’s nascent social TV landscape was accelerated by fans’ shocked delight at the audacious, almost offensive speed with which it dispensed of plot twists that lesser supernatural soaps would have spent whole seasons milking. Series creators Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson “laughed in the face of sustainability and audience comfort,” Daniel Fienberg noted in his warm retrospective, written as that series neared its final bow. “To watch the show in [its first two] seasons was to sit with one’s jaw regularly agape as characters died or reversed moral direction and did things that seemed impossible for the writers to fix or live with, [only for] the writers [to find] ways to make nearly every wacky or bizarre choice land.”

This is all well and good, but Jane the Virgin and The Vampire Diaries—and hell, most of The CW’s current slate—have the upper hand over The Good Place in that they run twice as long as The Good Place does, and that they are, at their core, soaps, a genre for which Wham Episodes are the primary narrative engine. Limited by both its 22-minute runtime and the sitcom’s less soap-friendly storytelling, The Good Place can’t expect to thrive off a diet of Wham Episodes in the same way those CW shows can—and that’s before asking that the audience pick up some moral philosophy along the way. So, yeah, sure, I agree that The Good Place is the smartest dumbest show around, that it’s funny and great and good—but at some point, to pull off the serialization it seems to want to pull off, it has to have a consistent narrative that ties those things together with real emotional stakes and real consequences, and those consequences have to last, dammit. All these Wham Episodes we’ve gotten with particular frequency this season, in all their hard narrative and/or character reboots, have made it difficult to believe that real emotional stakes existed among any of the characters, save, perhaps, for Michael and Janet (and, possibly, Maya Rudolph’s Judge). To see the future storyline promised at the end of “Chidi Sees the Time-Knife,” and to know that at The Good Place’s pace, it couldn’t possibly last—of course I was disappointed.

And then the finale finally arrived, and with it, some greater insight into whether or not The Good Place will be slowing down in its fourth season to let the emotional stakes of the New Good Place develop before pulling the rug out from under us again. The good news: For the emotional impact borne by the whole Soul Squad at Chidi’s (William Jackson Harper) sacrifice to make sense, his reboot has to stick for longer than a few episodes. The better news: In their very human sit-down before Eleanor (Kristen Bell) has to finally introduce herself to Reboot Chidi as the architect, Eleanor and Janet are able to pull together a lot of the open emotional and narrative threads I’d been frustrated about, if in a grander, more philosophical way than I might have anticipated: “Can you just tell me the answer,” Eleanor begs Janet. “There has to be meaning to existence or else the universe is just made of pain.” “If there were an answer I could give you to how the universe works,” Janet tells her, “it wouldn’t be special. It would just be machinery fulfilling its cosmic design. It would just be a big, dumb food processor. But since nothing seems to make sense, when you find something or someone that does, it’s euphoria.”

Add to that exchange the fact that whether the humans get rebooted again or not, this experiment seems on its face to have established stakes for all of humanity, and the lasting narrative consequences I’ve been waiting for seem, finally, to be coming together. I mean, I do think there is something in between “big, dumb food processor” and “euphoria,” but for now, as Eleanor puts it before waking Reboot Chidi up, “I guess all I can do is embrace the pandemonium, find happiness in the unique insanity of being here, now.”

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.